Production Notes

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gone Elvis – DAY 0

The day before we began filming, Production Assistant Nick Lagonia and I were in my driveway prepping the hero car and all the gear. Nick, a production student at SUNY Plattsburgh, was a kid in a candy store, wide-eyed at the revelation and explanation of each new piece of equipment. He was one of the fastest learners I’d ever worked with and had a great attitude, qualities that were about to become more valuable when my cellphone rang that afternoon. It was my friend and colleague Brian, who was scheduled to be the other hands and brains in the camera department. His mother had suddenly passed away, and he wasn’t coming on the shoot. I felt horrible for him; and at the same time, thunderheads were gathering over the county, and Nick and I had to get the gear into our vehicles and moved to the hotel before the skies opened up on us. “You want to stay in Brian’s room at the hotel?” I asked Nick. “You can just stay with us the whole time and do whatever needs to be done. It’ll be a baptism of fire, but you’ll learn a lot.”

Thankfully, Jeanne was available to pick up Carla from her delayed train while Nick and I got the last of the gear into our cars and . . . that’s the first time my battery died. We jumped it under darkening skies, moved to the hotel, and waited for the rain to stop before we could get the gear inside. “Bad dress rehearsal, good performance,” I kept muttering to myself. It was already getting late, we still had to get back to our homes to pack, meet up with Carla, get the hero car moved, load up remaining props, and shower (I was disgusting). BUT there was a water-main break near my house, so I was going to stay disgusting for a little while longer.

http://vimeo.com/26677569

By about 10:00p, we reconvened at the hotel, clean and conscious, but not entirely rested and focused for Day 1. Carla and I discussed some last-minute script changes; other crew would be joining us the next day; Nick looked somewhere between ebullient and dazed. Call was for 7:30 the next morning. I don’t think any filmmaker should invest much in omens when it comes to production, but I didn’t sleep easy.

gone Elvis – Day 1

Photo by Jeanne V. Bowerman

Every shoot has a ramp-up period. This was more like a vertical takeoff.  We started rolling with a crew of 3 and cast of 1 at about 8:00am and would wrap Day 1 sometime after midnight with 10 sequences in the can from 8 different locations.  Adding team members throughout the day, we traveled in a caravan around Columbia County, a cross between a film crew and Washington’s motley, volunteer army.  Guerrilla-style film production?  You bet.  And it can work for a film like gone Elvis, if you have a team with the right attitude.  Thankfully, this team did.

At our second location, the Kinderhook library, I actually thought the wheels might come off, that I might drop way behind schedule and wouldn’t be able to recover.  Jeanne arrived and began taking photos and providing real-time PR via Facebook and Twitter.  I kept smiling but was thinking, “No, don’t shoot this; something is about to blow up.”  But it didn’t.  When we framed up the close-up on Carla using the library computer, I relaxed a little.  An HMI through the window gave us late afternoon light, and Carla was solid, focused, utterly immersed in Sloane’s world.  She’s good.  This just might work.

Photo by Jeanne V. Bowerman

This first day was mostly exteriors.  It was hot, we had a fair amount of driving from place to place, my car battery needed jumping a couple of times; and on the subject of batteries, it turns out the Arri ALEXA eats them like candy.  By the time I’d frame up and block a scene, we’d usually killed at least one “brick,” so the team did a good job of charging at every opportunity in order to keep us rolling.  Still, by midday, it was clear there was too much on the 4-day schedule, so I cut a pretty big scene (an alternate ending) that admittedly should have been cut in an earlier draft of the script.

Photo by Patrick Harbron
Photo by Patrick Harbron

Absent Brian, Nick rose to the occasion and proved himself a competent camera assistant for our purposes.  Meanwhile, Jeanne instinctively became line producer (see den mother); and our audio tech, Robert, took on media management as well as lighting duties. PA Andrea La Pietra moved heavy gear around in the heat without complaint, and my old college friend Chris joined us to provide an extra pair of hands and vehicle to expedite company moves.  Even the stills photographer, Patrick Harbron, lent a hand wherever he could.

Toward evening, Mary O’Brady arrived and stepped into AD mode — my extra brain, eyes, and ears.  We had a homeless Vietnam vet whom Jeanne had cast in the 11th hour, but he needed props.  Mary and Nick disappeared while we filmed Carla’s scenes in the parking lot, and when I turned around, they had a shopping cart full of homeless guy crap.  It looked perfect.  We weren’t too far behind schedule, but the light was changing rapidly. The crew ate Subway sandwiches between takes.  Thank you, crew!

Photo by Jeanne V. Bowerman
Photo by Patrick Harbron
Photo by Patrick Harbron

Our last shots of the night were flashback scenes we filmed in a local park.  We were sweaty, bug-bitten, and tired; and the generator began giving us a hard time. So, we bagged the HMI, rated the ALEXA at 1600, and lit the scenes with flashlights held in strategic positions by crew members.  It wound up looking better than it would have with the HMI.

In filmmaking, you have to be ready for the surprises — more than that, you have to welcome them because surprises come with fortunate results as well as unfortunate ones. That sounds good on paper, but on a long shoot day, it can be disorienting.  By the time we turned in, all I knew was that we had done a lot on our first day, but I was way too tired to know if any of of it was any good.

What I did know was that a lot of good people had volunteered time, resources, locations, energy, and talent to make this happen.  “Better be something in the can,” I thought before grabbing a few hours sleep.

gone Elvis – DAY 2

We shot primarily in the hotel.  The script has a sequence in which a hotel clerk allows our heroine to use a room to change into her dress uniform, so we naturally used the hotel where we were all staying.  The day was generally much easier than the first day — no big company moves; and working in air conditioning mitigated the fatigue factor.  Still, it was a long day with one downer that came via Facebook from my eldest son.  Jeanne had posted pictures from our Day 1 cemetery scene on the fan page, and my son was among the first to comment that I had put the pin in the wrong place on Sloane’s beret.  This meant re-shooting that scene, and the only way to shoehorn it into the schedule would be to use a different cemetery I liked a lot less.  DO NOT BE YOUR OWN WARDROBE SUPERVISOR IF YOU CAN POSSIBLY HELP IT.

The day had good fortune as well, though.  While filming in the hotel room, we checked the weather forecast in anticipation of our night exterior shoot in which Sloane is stopped by a police officer.  It was almost definitely going to rain, and I figured we’d have to try to rejigger the schedule again, which didn’t have much rejigger room left.  Instead, we abandonded the shot list that called for shots from outside the car, which weren’t going to happen in a downpour.  Neither was breaking out any lighting units.  Once again, I rated the ALEXA at 1600 ISO and shot the whole scene from inside the car.  It was much more dramatic in the rain and is one of the best looking scenes in the film, in my opinion.

gone Elvis – DAY 3

Once again, we started the day by adapting.  Our temp agency scene was meant to be filmed in a cubicle type office in Albany, but the key to that office was in the pocket of production manager Rick Demarest, who had been in Atlanta and now had his flight delayed by the same storm system that gave me nice, dramatic rain the night before.  So, we begged use of an office at the hotel and shot there.  Design-wise, it doesn’t look like what I wanted, but Mary and Carla worked so well together to play the important subtext in the scene, that the surroundings mostly disappear.

By the time we were shooting in the doctor’s office at the Albany VA Medical Center, I think everyone kind of hit a stride and was feeling pretty good.  There were a few laughs, although this was generally a shoot without many laughs.  Carla stayed in character a great deal of the time, so she appeared generally down even if she wasn’t; I was fairly tense, keeping more in my head than I would have preferred; and the days were long without real breaks.  It helped that the doctor was played by Terry Caza with whom I’ve worked very closely and maintain a pretty high-spirited relationship.

We took a proper dinner break that night and then shot the final scene of the film between about 10p and 2 a.m.  It was perfect weather for a night shoot, mild temperature without humidity, few bugs, and very quiet. We were filming the sequence in which Sloane finds a new place to park and sleep for the night, and we were able to work quietly and diliberately in a way that I think helped Carla stay lonely while surrounded by people.  As it had been raining in the previous scene, we had to wet the windows down with a garden hose, which actually helped both with lighting and masking her specific location. We moved around the car, blocking and shooting our way through the sequence until Sloane goes to sleep.  We used the available streetlights, one inky, and a flexfill manned by Nick; and there is no way we would have gotten so much texture with so little light without the ALEXA.  I spoke in whispers while rolling, just wanting to keep the mood steady and quiet.  It’s one of my favorite shoots I’ve ever done.

gone Elvis – DAY 4

We would begin the day in the Holiday Inn parking lot, where Sloane wakes up in her car and end in the modest gym in Valatie, where Sloane works out and cleans up for the day.  In between, we had to travel to the strip club and also redo the cemetery scene in Kinderhook beceause I messed up the uniform.  In the strip club scene, Sloane is seeking a job as a bouncer, and the club owner (Elmer King) turns her away.  The scene went quite well, but there was a fair bit of tension in the room for one reason or another.

I stepped outside to sort out a simpler, quicker establishing shot than the one I’d planned on paper; and when I walked back inside, every woman in the room — Mary, Carla, Jeanne, and Shirl — was on the stripper pole, rotating around it en masse like a May Pole.  It was no surprise that Carla, originally a dancer by training, could actually do the real moves; and then our audio engineer, Robert, gave it a go.  So much for the tension in the room.

We moved on, got the cemetery shot redone, and finished up with relatively simple scenes in the gym.  As is so often the case, the “martini” (last shot of a shoot) wasn’t a terribly dramatic shot.  In this case, it was Sloane fixing her hair in preparation for the day and a visit to the temp agency — just three of us crammed into the women’s locker room.  As soon as I said “wrap,” though Sloane immediately turned back into Carla, who happens to be one of the sunniest people I’ve ever met.  She beamed and said, “I can be nice to you now!”  I wouldn’t realize until post production just how much she had transformed herself into another person.  This was by far the biggest film role she’d ever done, and she poured everything into it.  I will be forever grateful.

Of course the fun part about wrapping a guerilla-style shoot is that there isn’t a whole crew of grips, electrics, and PAs to pack up and return the gear while director and cast commence drinking.  We took some celebratory pictures in the parking lot; and then Nick and Rick and I did the world’s fastest load-out, grungy and exhausted, while everyone else returned home.

Two days later, I began assembling Scene 1.

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