Making a feature film...lessons learnt
In many ways I should have documented my first feature film experience while it was happening. Every day. But to be honest it was so incredibly exhausting, emotional, exhilarating, living on cloud 9 kinda feeling I don’t think I could have put pen to paper. or rather finger to key.
what I will try and explain now is the circumstances that I was under. It takes a lot of mental strength. I was writing the script for the best part of 2 years with Eddy Davenport. This was meetings once a week, phone calls and exchanging of notes. He would send me the script, I would send him pages of notes back and so fourth. It was a very creative and rewarding process and one I am cherishing again at this moment in time. At this stage you have all the time in the world. And thats something I will remind myself when it comes to my next. During the writing process you are in this endless bubble of creative space. And what I learnt was you can never over prepare and its essential that you explore every possible avenue before time becomes money. And you quickly run out of both.
Then followed 3 months of pre production. This was frantic. Chasing people. Organising people. Slotting all the elements into place. Hiring crew.. firing crew. Loosing cast and then re casting. You have to rely on so many different people to keep it all afloat. For my first feature I was producing the film as well along with my producing partner. This gave me full control which is great as shit generally gets done. Yet it did sabotage my time that was dedicated to being the “director” and not the “producer” You have to separate yourself and become two beings. As it was such a quick prep and I only had 1 other producer who was helping me it gave me little time to work on my storyboard and actor preparation. Which is why I stress to do all this in the writing process. I prepared to the best of my ability given that you only have 24 hours in a day. I storyboarded the entire film shot by shot. I made directing notes on every line of the script and always coming up with alternatives if on the day things were not working with the actor.
So you go into the shoot already exhausted from 3 months of working flat out. But it only gets more full on. I woke up at 5am ever day for 3 weeks. Sleep walking into a shower to try and force my eyes awake. Any other given time I wouldn’t have been able to function but your running off this secret fuel and although stressed, nervous and anxious. I was the happiest I have ever been. You really are living the dream and seeing it all come to fruition is special every single hour, minute and second of each day. To think back on this tiny seed that you planted so many years ago and now see all these talented people working hard on achiving the same common goal is a special process and one I would not give up for anything.
The entire crew and cast bombards you with questions. Its 24/7. Your mind has to become split with every department. The costume person wants this.. the designer wants this… the actors want this… the camera wants that…. and they all conflict. And you have to take them all and then look at the story as a whole picture. Sometimes I found individually things were good ideas but when you piece it together it stops working.
The days shoot ends late. I wouldn’t get home till 9pm or maybe 10. I would sit down with the actors and start going over the next day. last minute questions, read throughs. There was even some re writing. Then the actors would go to bed and I would transcribe the data, backing the footage up. And finally rolling into bed at 2am and quickly squeezing in 30 minutes of my own prep preparing for the next day, looking at what scenes my AD has scheduled, looking over my notes. Eventually getting to sleep by 3am and then getting up around 5 am.
There are problems every day. locations calling you. People asking for more money from every different department. Actors refusing to do certain things. Its about overcoming these challenges and doing so without loosing sight of what you want to achieve overall. I found that each department is completely focused on achieving the best result for their singular priority. But sometimes this isnt the best result when you put them all together so its important as the director to keep going over "the big picture" and remembering that the film is made for the audience watching it. Not for anyone else. So what do your audience want to see. What is going to move them, entertain them, affect them.
The top 6 things I learnt...
1. More pre-production time with the HODS - I need to get everything right that is going to appear on screen as this will forever be there. And the details really do matter. Everything that is in frame. Sometimes you have to be brutal and once shooting forget being nice and make sure the frame is perfect. Some of the stuff outside the frame is less important. Concentrate on what is in each frame.
2. Costume - have the characters make as little costume changes as possible! There is nothing more time consuming than the actors changing their costumes. AND everything, absolutely everything will be shot out of sequence so they will be forever changing. What they wear, AND HOW they wear it. Costume says a lot too, take time. Have a fitting with the actors! We didnt have this luxary so is stress how important it is for the actor to feel comforatable in their costume. I wish I had given them time to make it their own. You really can tell in the performance which costumes they felt right in. So next shoot costume fittings :)
3. DOP - More handheld. Less staged shots. Cinematography always seems to get in the way of actors performances. More wide shots! More two shots! The two shots have something so magical that a close up doesn't seem to have. To bring two character into the same shot and let them react off each other. improvising the moments. Its real. Its natural. Make a wide shot and let the actors have some more freedom. Then if time I can carefully select close ups. A dop is always looking for a perfectly framed shot don't forget that you owe it to the story not the frame. Tell the story before the shot. People will remember the story not the frame.
4. Script is most important! And what works on page does not always work on screen. Always look at it visually. The script seems to be clearer than the film. A script explains things. But the film shows it visually and is less clear. We see things for a split second! When we read the line on paper it lasts way longer. So be less subtle. Allow more time for an audience to watch a character and digest whats happening before moving on.
5. Less is more. Less scenes. Less characters. Less diversions. Make a stronger message, plot. Stick to it. Stay with the main characters. The more screen time something is given, someone is given the more we care. And thats all it really is about. Caring for someone. Cover scenes with better coverage than shooting more of them. I found my small cutting scenes didnt work and a lot of them fell onto the cutting room floor as they say. In my case my living room floor! The bigger ones with dialogue and emotion worked much better. 90 minutes isn’t that long so to have an impact on someone, say less and be firmer with it.
6. Allow time to push the actors. Push the story. Push the moment. Force the character to deal with their worst nightmare. Unfortunately due to having an actor drop at the last second we had to do a re cast with no time to rehearse or prepare and so there was no time to ask cast what they were prepeared to do and what not. I found that some actors are willing to go anywhere and others arent and this can really hurt the story.
At the end of the day were trying to make art and boundaries and restrictions in terms of performances can be really damaging. Being my first feature film I felt inexperienced in comparison to some of the actors I worked so hard on getting. For months I was exhausting myself by obtaining the right actor. So it was heartbreaking when I look back and feel some regrets on wishing I could have taken this actor to a much deeper place. Some of the time it was lack of time. A few times it was an actor putting walls up. For my next film I will not work with an actor who has walls up and that goes for whether they are an up coming talent or an established super star ;)