Shooting The Stagg Do
You can never do enough pre-production. It doesn't matter what type of show you're working on, it could be a short film, a corporate gig, a music video, whatever. You never get to do enough planning. This is pretty much a given in the film industry and with the Stagg Do this was also true, but it was no surprise. I was informed of this from the very beginning, the first meeting I had with James it was made perfectly clear that this was a labour of love on a shoestring budget. Fine by me, everything I've worked on to date has lacked the money to get all the toys and support one would love to have on a project. You have to make the best with what you have, and I've always been a firm believer that it doesn't matter what format you are shooting on, it's HOW you shoot and WHAT you are shooting that counts.
What stood out the most about this project was the enthusiasm and sheer ballsiness of the producer and director. It was never going to be an "easy" shoot. Not by a long shot, but damned if they were going to let that stop them. When people care that much about a project you cannot help but be swept up into it with them. I had nerves, just as any first time feature DoP would have, but confidence that what I had done up until now had made me ready for what lay ahead. Every shoot has it's challenges, like choosing a path on a climbing wall. What we had in front of us this time though, was a mountain!
And fuck me if we didn't conquer it. Other blogs have talked about the struggles and frustrations we faced on our 8 days in the summer of 2011. Other people more eloquent and, dare I say it, tactful than me have covered the dramas behind the scenes so I'm not going to go into that at all here. My own personal experience with this film was fulfilling and positive, no matter the trials we faced. It didn't matter how cold and wet it got, it didn't matter how far off the schedule things went, we knuckled down and did the work in front of us.
Tempers fray, when you are spending that much time with people you hardly know, under the cosh of the elements and when things don't go according to plan, people are going to snap. You deal with it, you move on. The only place I have really revelled in stress of any kind is on a film set. It drives you, it makes you grit your teeth and say "fuck it, let's do this" all the more, and that is exactly what we did. All of us.
Did we make mistakes? Sure for a lot of us this was our first feature. Did we get behind on schedule at times? Absolutely, but when the chips were down we rallied back. In the end we were a team, we started as a team and we finished as a team, even though there were subs along the way. Regardless of all of that I'm proud of what we did. Proud that we took the gamble, looked at the odds and went all in. It's balls like that that gets films made.
I have a lot of respect for the people I worked with on The Stagg Do. The choices that were made in bringing this film to fruition were extremely brave, from the casting of non-actors in the main roles and shooting in woods night with minimal lighting, to having a profoundly deaf production/ camera assistant. I got the opportunity to work directly with some great new people and some who I've always wanted to work with. I got the chance to support two of the most passionate filmmakers I know and help them make the film they wanted to. I'm proud to say I was the director of photography on The Stagg Do.
by Richy Reay
This was our first feature film. It was for James and I, for David (the editor) for Richy (DoP) for a few of the cast and most of the rest of the crew. As it's a self-funded micro-budget we are missing lots of positions who would be on a bigger film - and so certain things haven't been prepared correctly. Including the reels - when one department's assistant hands over to another departments assistant then things generally run smoothly. When the producer (muggins here) is both departments' assistant - and everyone else's assistant too - things go wrong. Again and again and sometimes again!
I spent 3 days re-locking the reels last week - THREE days to do an assistant's job - and I STILL got it wrong! Jeez what an embarrassment - in the end Aris had to get a mate of his to do the job… Ha, I really think this film is cursed sometimes - and the fact it hasn't driven anyone to drink or drugs yet is nothing short of a miracle!
Anyway it's not all bad - Therase, lovely Therase, who plays Charlotte has emigrated to Australia and we needed to get a few of her lines re-recorded… Clearly a trip to Rich's studio in Newcastle was out of the question! Finally after nearly a month of near misses, unreturned phone calls and scheduling SNAFUs we managed to get her into a great little studio Down Under - The Sydney Sound Brewery - check it out if you need to record an album or even just a few lines of dialogue. Tell John I sent you - hopefully that won't make him run for the hills!
Our poster is just about done and I'm currently looking at DVD and CD packaging options as well as merchandise design.
What else??? We're going into the sound mix in April - woo! AND we have our first screening booked. It won't be the first screening we have, but it's the first one booked in!!! Details here soon.
Finally we're looking at dates and venues in Newcastle for our WORLD PREMIERE… Again details here soon.
My thoughts on the fuck ups
As I have alluded on this blog before we had some major problems on The Stagg Do shoot, Lucas McNelly whom I've talked about here and who you can follow here recently wrote this blog on the A Year Without Rent project site about where on-set problems come from and how to avoid them. This got me thinking more about some of our problems and how we should have seen them coming. I've taken his blog (italics) and written a response/ explanation to each point. Before you read though it's important to know that I agree 100% with his 5 rules and that generally ie on the 20+ shorts we've made before, we've adhered to them all!
The thing is most film shoots suffer from a variety of problems and as Lucas so rightly points out, they usually stem from the same few causes. It's funny, I guess, that he is spending a year travelling around working on all of these films and yet he still gets confronted by the same issues time and time again - not least on The Stagg Do where we broke at least four of these rules. Haha - guess the philosopher in me says: I'm glad I'm not Lucas, maybe he should rename AYWR as Groundhog Shoot.
1. Hire Good People
UP COUNTRY isn't really one of our projects (well, the production part, anyway), but we had one really, really inept crew member. He shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. Luckily, he was at the bottom of the totem pole, but I've seen producers who shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. It happens all over the place. And it isn't always because they're inept. Sometimes they just can't handle the job. Sometimes their personality clashes with the people they're supposed to be working with. Whatever the situation, these are things you (and I) should be figuring out in pre-production. Check references. Ask around. You can learn a lot about someone by talking to people they've worked with.
I think a lot of our problems on The Stagg Do came from this basic mistake. Not that we hired bad people per se, but we had a hodge-podge crew - some people with no previous experience but a lot of willingness and then some people with lots of experience. What didn’t work though was the different styles and personalities. James and I fundamentally believe that you shouldn’t shout at people to make them work harder and that “buy-in” is way more important. I like a loose set not something that resembles a military operation, and I know that if you shout at me the last thing I’m going to do is work hard for you. That doesn’t mean that being a “hard-ass” is wrong and from my experience the people with “hard-ass” reputations do work harder and use their own exacting standards on themselves, I just see that the two styles are in direct contrast with each other and don’t dovetail well* (*at all).
This is totally on me as I didn’t do my homework and make the calls needed to find out what people would be like on set. I built a bad team. Lesson learned for next time.
The other thing which has become apparent in the interceding time, mainly as a result of last week’s pick up/ reshoot night, was that we had too many people on set. The crew was too big. Of course I sought advice from people while crewing up - but in hindsight we could have lost about 5 crew without any discernible difference, except the positive one of streamlining the crew.
Having the right blend of personalities I think is the most important lesson to take from this, which reminds me how not only did we break Lucas' rule - but also that in doing so we broke FNA's number one rule: "We don't want the best person for a role if they don't have the personality to fit with our team." - FNA4Life and all that.
2. Do Your Homework
You don't always have to do storyboards. Lots of filmmakers don't. You don't even necessarily need a shot list. Or a script. But, dammit, you have to know your story. You have to know what you want and how to get it. Otherwise, you're just floundering around on set. It looks weak. And when you look weak, the sharks will find you. And when the sharks find you, I write that shit down.
James (full disclosure - my partner as well as the writer/ director) always knows his project, he knew where the problems were likely to come from ie the actors (we had two non actors in the leads) and so wanted to spend as much time as possible concentrating on the performances. This meant a LOT of work fell on the AD and DoP, this had been planned and okayed by the DoP and the AD - with meetings and Skypes in advance to let them know what was needed shot-wise so James could devote most of his time on-set to rehearsing the cast. Unfortunately this didn’t really work out the way it was supposed to, maybe because they didn’t have big/ experienced enough departments to deal with it properly.
What surprised me most was that when we started floundering people didn’t tell me (and I was there or thereabouts most of the time). This meant that often people made mistakes (it’s okay, we all do) which meant people started to not trust each other - which is where the problems become huge! TRUST is a massive part of teamwork. We had three “factions” (I use the term loosely - cause it wasn’t “that bad”) and none of them really trusted each other - mainly because they had all seen the mistakes the others made, which created this lack of faith. The thing is everyone makes mistakes - and believe me on our shoot EVERYONE did make mistakes, the key for me though is to acknowledge your own failings and admit to them rather than covering them up and pointing the finger! At the end of the day it was/ is mine and James’ film and mine and James’ money on the line - if we aren’t stressing and blowing a gasket at every given opportunity why should anyone else? Life and by extension filmmaking is basically a series of problems - how you deal with those problems says more about you than you could ever imagine! CLUE: Moaning and blaming other people doesn’t make the problem go away.
Then there are the unexpected problems (that come from using non-professional actors) we were using one of the actor’s cars as the action vehicle. We had been told we could use it on the Saturday and Sunday (Day 1 and Day 2) but not during the week as his wife needed it. We built a lot of the schedule around the availability of the car. The actor turned up to his costume fitting the day before we started and said we couldn’t use the car on the Sat and Sun but we could use it during the week! This of course fucked the schedule before we started and that was the root cause of a ton of the hassle. In fairness to the actor (as a non pro) he had no idea that this simple switcheroo with his wife could have such a massive impact on everything else!
Preparation is key in all of this, of course, and really condensing prep into a few short weeks maybe was a dumbass thing to do - but as they say sometimes you have to seize the day, and I seriously believe if we hadn't shot The Stagg Do when we did then FNA would still be waiting to shoot their first feature. We took a lot of risks on this project, some worked and a few backfired - but you know what they say: "Fortune favours the brave."
3. Feed People
Seriously. Fucking feed people. There should be a craft services table with healthy snacks on it. And meals. Real meals. On-time. If you're shooting on location and the crew lives on location, then you are responsible for all 3 meals. A hungry crew is a grumpy crew. It takes very little to turn a grumpy crew into an angry crew. You don't want an angry crew.
As for beer: wrap beers are a good idea. On-set beers are a bad idea.
Catering was always going to be a nightmare on this, not so much from a budget point of view but from a logistical one, as we were in the middle of nowhere, on night shoots. The three days I had left myself to plan catering got swallowed by replacing the sound department (the recordist broke his hand just before the shoot). I think for two days the food was sandwiches - which is shit and for that I hold my hands up and apologise, it wasn’t good enough. We did have a barbecue on one day though and fresh fish and chips on another - so it wasn’t all bad! Beer? On-set beer was a feature, not one I was particularly happy about - but I can see both sides. And because of how the schedule worked out we kind of had two wrap parties, which for me personally made up for a lot of the shit that we’d gone through.
Yeah I should've leaned even heavier on my mate Dawn - she could've and would've catered the whole thing under budget, but as most of the crew were staying in her house I felt asking another favour would have been taking the piss. But lesson learned: "Shy bairns get ne sweets." aka "The crew of shy producers get crap food."
4. Call Sheet
The crew should have a call sheet before they wrap for the night. At bare minimum, a call time that's clear to everyone. Don't assume word will get around. People like to know if they have to be up at 6am or 10am before they decide if they want to start drinking.
But, seriously, a call sheet should have more information than you think it needs. The schedule. The scenes to be shot. The weather. Directions to crew parking. The crew is going to carry it around all day, so give them all the information they need.
Our schedule snafus caused by the car situation meant that we were rescheduling on the fly for the first three or four days, this of course meant call sheets often didn’t arrive until midnight - and at least once I totally missed someone off the distribution list! Of course it didn’t help that in the midst of all this shit shovelling (which let’s face it, when things go spectacularly wrong - is what it is) that the cool heads didn’t always prevail and help head off other situations before they blew up; this turned a little snowball into a full blown avalanche! The last day, I did the callsheet - it was poo. Seriously poo.
Once the schedule goes tits up on the eve of principle photography you're always facing an uphill battle. Make sure your trenches are filled with people who are up for the fight.
Things will go wrong. The schedule will change. When it does, tell people. The people working on this film with you aren't your employees, they're your creative partners. Treat them as such. The crew probably knows before you do that you aren't going to make your day. What they don't know is how you're going to adjust. So keep them in the loop. If you know that you're going 3 hours over the scheduled wrap time, it's a good idea to get everyone else's buy-in. If they say "no", then they're the bad guys. If you don't ask, you're the bad guy.
Fortunately this wasn’t a major issue for us as our schedule was dictated by the light. We shot when it was dark and stopped at sun up. Having said that I do think on set communication was a problem throughout, with people making decisions they shouldn’t and then not even feeding back to the director or producer! I guess if James or I had been hard-asses then that at least wouldn't have happened! LOL.
This one always makes me laugh more than any other - we are in the business of communication, yet too often as practitioners we forget this and bottle stuff up or think the jungle drums will pass the message on. Not true - be proactive and make sure the message is loud and clear.
You'll notice that none of these things have anything to do with your budget. Well, the food does, but if you don't have the budget to feed people, you should be making a smaller movie. This is almost entirely a list of things that involve organization or being a good boss. Management 101 stuff. And it's in your control, whether your budget is $1,000 or $1,000,000. And, really, if you can't do these things, you shouldn't be surprised when things fall apart. Because they probably will. And you definitely shouldn't be surprised when I write about your production being a disorganized clusterfuck, even if it doesn't seem like that to you.
But if you can handle that (and really, it's a pretty basic list), you shouldn't be all that worried. If you really do the work, I'm going to write about that. So man up (or woman up) and get on the schedule already.
Was our film disorganised? Definitely. Could it have been better organised? Probably. Was it a clusterfuck? It wouldn’t have been if everyone had been pulling in the same direction - ie if we had a team - rather than a dozen individuals all trying to protect their corner so they don’t lose face in front of Lucas.
Should you have Lucas on your set? Yes. Because if nothing else (and there is more - he works really hard and he knows his shit) having that fuck off big spotlight that he brings shows you ALL of the cracks in your organisation and helps you root out the crap - and that can only be a good thing in the long run. In the short term it’s the kind of catharsis that feels like a root canal however!
Of course having seen Lost In La Mancha and Hearts Of Darkness you can't always tell from the shoot how the film will turn out (or not!) - and at the end of the day if the film turns out okay or great nobody gives a fuck about the process! It's just a shame we didn't have someone recording our "behind the scenes" - it would've been a doozy!!!
So what is the overall lesson I've learned from all of this? Making films is bloody hard work, and people act/ react differently under pressure - but overall it's more like a lesson I've relearned: It's not rocket science and we are not saving lives. ENJOY.
Will try our best to keep this busy during the shoot and post-production.