Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Makin' Movie Magic

Greetings, Cinema-nutz.

I've talked at length before about the paralysis I experienced after graduating from High School.  Leading up to that moment, no appealing career path had ever been laid out for me.  Even if my guidance councillor had bothered to ask what I wanted to do for a living I probably couldn't have given him an answer.

But perhaps if certain creative avenues and interesting possibilities had been proffered I might have replied:

"I wanna makes movies for a living!"    

Despite such a definitive answer, I'm pretty sure the creatively bankrupt organ donors who ran my High School would have equated my declared career path to something akin to Prestidigitator, Evoker, Conjurer, Theurgist, Enchanter, Warlock, Illusionist or Sorcerer.

Indeed, I might as well have told them:

"I want to be a Wizard!"  


Fast forward twenty odd years (with an emphasis on the word fast).

In the Fall of 2011 I heard about a Halifax-based affiliation of local actors, film technicians and creative types here who were meeting regularly under the clever monitor of HalifACTS!  I couldn't have timed my involvement in the group any better.  With Fall and Winter traditionally being a slow time in the local film industry, this industrious folks had taken it upon themselves to come up with their own make work project.

They were going to make a movie!

I've said it before but it bears repeating: as much as I like doing background stuff, I'd be a lot happier working behind the camera in some technical capacity.  Needless to say, this group and their ambitious project was right in my wheelhouse.

As we got down to brass tacks, I experienced a few genuine and pleasant surprises.  First off, everything came together in a fairly democratic and smooth process.  Secondly, we actually followed through on our intended goal!

Here's a rough timeline of how it all came together:

October 26'th We got together at the IT campus of the community college (Ironic!) to select our inaugural film project.  In doing so, five or six of us pitched our script ideas.  Gary had a parody of This Hour Has 22 Minutes.  Carolyn the clever idea of adapting a vintage dating guide.  And since I was under the erroneous impression that our regular meeting place was going to be at the college I proposed a horror movie parody called Community Carnage which could be filmed exclusively on-site.  After much debate, the general consensus was to go with Hatchet, a short n' simple, dialogue-light psychological tone poem written by one of HalifACTS! founding members, Becca Babcock.

November 7'th  In our first follow-up meeting each member of the group declared their preference for various behind-the-scenes jobs.  In a motion that was universally carried, Becca was tapped to wear the Producer's hat and Gary was given the Director's chair (although neither of them ever did get receive their respective accoutrements).  Since I had some experience with video and sound, I applied for Sound / Camera / Lighting technician jobs.  After all of us had a chance to volunteer for our chosen roles, Becca, Dale and Gary spent the next month or so nailing down these key assignments.

November 11'th  Details of a group fundraising plan were proposed and a sign up sheet for actor auditions began to circulate.

November 19'th  Auditions were held!

November 25'th  Becca announces our cast:      

Johanna: Eliana Clay
Man: Kevin Gerrior
Woman: Carolyn Thomas
Saleswoman: Helen Corkum
Homeless Man: Mike Hazel   

On the very same day, Becca proposed two tentative shooting dates: December 9'th and the 11'th.  Knowing full well that procrastination would put our momentum in jeopardy, we were all comforted by the thought that our film should actually be in the can before Christmas.

December 5'th  Tragically I had to miss the BBQ turkey feast fundraiser at Q Smokehouse.  Although the project was almost entirely volunteer, this event was still instrumental in raising a tidy sum to deal with the budgetary incidentals that we all knew would crop up.

December 7'th  With people committing to and then dropping out of the project, a tentative makeshift crew list was released:  

PRODUCER - Becca Babcock
DIRECTOR - Gary Fontaine
1st AD -  ?
3rd AD -  ?
CAMERA OPERATORS - Dean Aubie, Kevin Gerrior, Mike Swain
EDITORS- Carolyn Thomas, Dean Aubie, Gary Fontaine
SOUND ENGINEER - Kevin Gerrior
SOUND ASSISTANT - David Pretty, Mike Hazel
CLAPPER - Helen Corkum
CRAFT SERVICES - Carolyn Thomas, Helen Corkum
PROPS/SET DESIGN - Angela Furlong-Poole
PROPS/SET DESIGN ASSISTANTS - Eliana Clay, Mike Hazel, Tina Hiltz
MAKE-UP - Jennifer Campbell, Tabitha Ward
HAIR -  ?
LOCATIONS - Gary Fontaine, Angela Furlong-Poole
GRIPS - Mike Hazel
WARDROBE - Dale Willman

December 8'th (revised date) and 11'th  We begin to shoot our movie!  Here are a few "behind the scenes" shots from those two amazing days...

Hall Monitor: Producer Becca Babcock (middle)  points out a critical detail for Script Supervisor Assistant Dale Willman (left)  and Director Gary Fontaine (right).   
While shooting guerilla-style at the gas station, Helen Corkum, Dale Willman, Jennifer Campbell and I attempt to stave off frostbite.  In the background Gary and star Eliana Clay stay warm with a heated discussion about the next scene.      

Cinematographer supreme Dean Aubie (left) and Camera Operator Mike Swain (right) prepare to shoot the bedroom scene while Helen Corkum (middle, floor) ponders the meaning of the universe.   

 Since we were keeping some very long hours, I managed to sneak in a few clandestine standing cat-naps in-between takes.  

Eliana Clay in her star-making turn as Johanna. 

 "Alice!  ALICE!!!"  Mike Hazel, totally in character as Hatchet's Homeless Man.  

 Guess which one of these people actually knows what they're doing?  Hint: it ain't me.  Hangin' with Script Supervisor Zoë Bigio during a break in filming.

In addition to playing a pivitol role in front of the camera, Carolyn Thomas did a superb job with Craft Services behind the scenes.  She's also apparently a big fan of Lovecraftian-style t-shirts. 

Clapper gal Helen Corkum prepares to mark the scene as Actor/Editor/Soundman/Camera Operator/Human Metronome Kevin Gerrior gets into the zone.  Note Set Decorator Angela Poole pulling double duty as a background extra and the fake-out title Insulator; which became our de-facto nod to Blue Harvest.

With people popping in and out of the production, we were all forced to multi-task.  Here I am calling on my extensive experience as a holder of random objects.  

Director Gary Fontaine managed to sustain us through two very challenging days of shooting.  An even greater accomplishment considering that the poor guy didn't even have an A.D.!    

TOADLY METAL!!!  Writer/Producer Becca Babcock seems pretty jazzed to see her script come to life while Make Up Artist Tabitha Ward is clearly amused by Becca's amusement.  

As you may have gathered from the photos we had an absolute blast while filming Hatchet.  Having said that, it still took two grueling and often cold days of filming to capture enough footage to make a fifteen minute short.  Keep in mind that except for a few very notable and highly-cherished exceptions (namely Zoë Bigio and Dean Aubie), most of us had absolutely no technical training whatsoever.  So, if nothing else, shooting Hatchet was one of the most labor-intensive and revelatory work experiences of my life.

Here are just a few things I learned over the course of those two incredible days:
  • Never Underestimate The Power of Pre-Production.  Regardless of whether or not you're shooting a five minute short a a two-hour long feature, you really need to deconstruct and pre-plan every single scene.  This will allow you to anticipate and address as many problems up front before risking on-set paralysis.  
  • Continuity is Tricksy.  One of the first things we shot was an exterior sequence featuring Eliana leaving her "house" and going to her car.  It was a cold December day and Eliana was only wearing a simple hoodie so I offered up my spare blue raincoat to her as a windbreaker.  Gary approved the jacket in the sequence but then we spent the rest of the shoot completely paranoid that this rogue piece of clothing wasn't in continuity with everything else.  That stupid coat became such a friggin' diva that Eliana had to borrow it again for a series of pick ups that were shot months later.      
  • Good Lighting = Cinema Magic.  The script had a scene where Johanna's already-restless night of sleep is disturbed by revelers and police just outside her bedroom window.  Since it was the middle of the day, I had no idea how we were going to shoot this.  But Dean and Kevin went right to work, blacking out the windows and giving the room the intimation of night-time with the strategic application of some muted blue lighting.  When Kevin's red strobe was added later to simulate the police car's lights outside - Presto! - we had an instant night scene!  
  • Reflective Surfaces Are The Devil's Playground.  Glass doors, monitor screens, picture frames, mirrors, eyeglasses, car windows, hell, even a chrome toaster can spoil a shot by revealing crew members and their equipment standing around like idiots in the background.  
  • Shut Yer Cakeholes!  For some reason we didn't think that we needed clean audio for certain takes so we were pretty lax about calling for quiet on set.  Yeah, that was a mistake, BTW.
  • Another Reason Why Corporate Brand Names Suck.  You constantly need to be analyzing on-set props and background signs to ensure that you aren't inadvertently exhibiting brand names.  You'd think corporations would appreciate the free advertising, but no, they're apparently too stupid to recognize a good thing when they've got it.
  • Locations: Easy To Write But Hard To Realize.  Hatchet called for a slew of different locations: an unfinished basement, a living room with a fireplace, a bedroom, a gas station, a pharmacy and a deserted parking lot.  Becca and Gary had to jump through the Five Fires of Fornax in order to secure some of these places.  Even though we were granted vague permission to shoot in the pharmacy and outside the gas station, I'm pretty sure those business owners had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  Needless to say, its very easy for a rookie film crew to overstay their welcome!  For example, while shooting at the gas station sequence, Carolyn and Kevin delivered a bravura performance as our bickering couple.  Perhaps a bit too bravura since a customer actually tried to intervene on what he thought was a genuine domestic squabble.  Carolyn really sold the authenticity of this scene by attempting to murder Kevin with a prop cellphone.  Cripes, she hurled that sucker at him like a Aroldis Chapman fastball.  
Initially I got involved with this project to earn something vaguely resembling a technical credit and to see how films are made from the ground-up.  Honestly, I really didn't harbor any pretensions that we were creating high-art.  In fact, I'll be the first admit that there were times when I was wondering if what we were shooting would even be watchable.

So when Becca invited us to her place last Saturday to screen the film, I was filled with equal parts giddy thrill and stark trepidation.  We all gathered at Casa Del Babcock (?) at 7 pm and marched down to the basement to witness what we'd all collectively wrought.

You could hear a pin drop during the first screening, but mercifully it wasn't because we were shell-shocked by the awful.  In fact quite the opposite: we are all amazed that we'd collectively made something so slick, professional and entertaining.  Indeed, we all sat there completely transfixed, watching the film in respectful silence.

The second screening was considerably more boisterous, like a commentary track featuring thirty excited kids all gooned up on liquor and sugar.  

I was stunned by the cinematic sorcery I'd just witnessed.  Here are just a few of my observations:
  • Director Gary Fontaine and D.O.P. / Camera Operator Dean Aubie came up with some really interesting P.O.V. shots, off-kilter angles and unnerving hand-held stuff.  All of which adds up to a constant state of unease for the viewer.    
  • Dean, Kevin Gerrior and Mike Swain also deserve major props for being acutely aware of things like field depth, points of focus and composition.  
  • The film's thematic color palate is wildly successful, generating a subtle change in mood with every transition.  In early production meetings we actually had someone say "Color palatte?  Tones?  What the hell are you talking about?  Let's just shoot this thing!"  I can only imagine how visually bankrupt the film would have been if we'd neglected this important resource. 
  • Dean, Gary and Kevin did a crackerjack job on editing.  The film pulses with a weird, slow burn energy that comes to a head in the climax.  Indeed, the film feels like five minutes and not fifteen.   
  • The performances are all stellar.  Our star ingenue Eliana effortlessly managed to navigate the gauntlet of emotions demanded of her by the psychologically nuanced script.  On camera, sweet Carolyn managed to transform Jekyll & Hyde style into a genuinely scary, bitch-on-wheels.  Kevin Gerrior mirrored her effort with an alternately belligerent and intense turn as Carolyn's "better" half.  Helen Corkum was flawlessly authentic as the pharmacy clerk.  And last (but certainly not least),  Mike Hazel exhibited the vacant thousand-yard-stare and bat-shit crazy ramblings needed for our Homeless Man.      
  • The music provided by Trent Soholt was also spot-on.  By evoking jazzy riffs during the quiet moments and dropping chunky, plodding bass lines into the moodier moments, the film really works well on a primal level.      
The abbreviated run time of Becca's script had me worried that the character of Johanna wouldn't be able to complete the extreme psychological arc that was required of her.  But now, with all the visual clues in place I stand corrected.  Hatchet often unspools like an economical version of Roman Polanski's Repulsion.  Like I said to Kevin after the screening: "The little details really add up.  In the words of Harry S. Plinkett: 'You might not notice these things, but your brain did.'"

Even though I wore several hats during the production (Sound Assistant, Lighting Assistant, Background, Random Item Holder, Human Coat Rack, Teamster), my contribution was still pretty negligible.  Nevertheless, I'm delighted to have played even a small part in the magical cabal that conjured up such an incredibly convincing cinematic illusion.

Sorcery, indeed.   

Hopefully Hatchet is just the first in a series of HalifACTS! productions.  Who knows, maybe one of these days you'll be able to see Community Carnage after all.   

EPIC    A more recent cast and credit list:

HalifACTS! Productions presents

Directed by                                        
Gary Fontaine

Screenplay by                                     
Becca Babcock

Produced by                                       
Becca Babcock

Eliana Clay
Carolyn Thomas
Kevin Gerrior
Helen Corkum
Michael Hazel

Director of Photography
Dean Aubie

Edited by
Dean Aubie
Gary Fontaine
Kevin Gerrior       

Set Designer
Angela Poole

Costume Designer
Dale Willman

Property Master
Michael Hazel

Music by
Trent Soholt

Camera Operators
Mike Swain
Kevin Gerrior
Dean Aubie

Kevin Gerrior
David Pretty

Script Supervisor
Zoë Bigio

Script Supervisor Assistant
Dale Willman

Helen Corkum

Jay S.

Craft Services
Carolyn Thomas
Helen Corkum
Tabatha Ward

Set Decorators
Eliana Clay
Angela Poole
Michael Hazel

Jennifer Campbell
Tabatha Ward

Wardrobe Assistant 
Jennifer Campbell 

Locations Manager
Gary Fontaine

Locations Assistant
Angela Poole

Key Grip
Michael Hazel

Production Assistant
Dale Willman

Special Thanks
Crowell’s Pharmasave, Spryfield
Robert Marriott
Darlene Harris

FAIL  Pre-screening I was just hoping and praying that we hadn't made something like this:  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantabulous review David!