So, after something in the region of three to four months in the planning (see previous articles) its finally time to shoot our John Constantine: Hellblazer fan film, which as previously mentioned was to take place over two shoot days; a brief evening’s shoot to get the exteriors followed by a lengthy day shoot to get all the interiors, which only required a single location, but a massive ninety or so shots.
The previous articles in this series have been largely instructional, but every shoot is totally its own entity and assuming that you’ve gotten to the point of shooting then I would suppose that you at least know something about HOW to shoot a film, which in the indie game is almost entirely doing the best you can with the people and equipment you’ve been able to gather along with the situations you’ll find yourself in. So this article will be an account of the shoot days and the obstacles we had to overcome to get the film in the proverbial can.
But if you’ll allow me, I’ll first start by listing the kind of kit we were using to shoot film and sound, for those who enjoy knowing about this technical stuff.
Our camera kit included a Canon 650D camera with a Canon 50mm USM lens and a Tokina ATX Pro DX 11-16mm lens (otherwise known as the wide angle lens). For camera mounts we used a Camera Research Motion – Black Bird (which is a portable steady-cam style stabiliser), a TR.EN shoulder mount and a Manfrotto 525 MVB tripod with a Manfrotto 503 head.
For sound we used a HHB Porta Disk sound recorder with a Rode NT5 microphone that was boom operated throughout with a Rode boom pole.
We also had a whole host of different lights to choose from as well as the venue’s lighting set-up, but going into detail about those is perhaps a little overly technical.
The exterior shoot was planned for a weeknight. We didn’t expect the shoot proper to last more than forty-five minutes or so and we were doing it with the minimum of cast and crew; we had David Chabeaux and Tony Brown as our John Constantine and Chas Chandler, respectively, myself (Richard Reynolds) directing and recording sound, Jordan Morris as director of photography and Clare Gregory doing makeup.
We had a cab booked from a nice man called Ali, which both required shots rotated around, but we wanted to get everyone together first for about an hour or so beforehand, chiefly due to the fact that until this point we’d only communicated with Dave via the internet and this was the first time we were going to be meeting. I hoped to God that he was an amiable dude and that the awesome trenchcoat that I got for him fit.
The evening literally couldn’t have gone better, everyone arrived early, Dave turned out to be a really nice guy and the trenchcoat fit like a glove, in fact it suited him so much that I promised he could keep it if he remembered his lines well on the primary shoot day. After some pleasant chat and some shop-talk about the film, Clare put Dave through makeup, giving him an old scar and tired looking eyes as well as the messy Constantine hair-do.
The taxi arrived early too, so we got to work getting the shots. This was Jordan’s first time using the Black Bird stabiliser in the field so a few takes were needed to get the movement within the shots but we got there soon enough. We took a little time repositioning for our second shot that took place inside the cab, but the guys acted up a storm and we were done in no time. The whole thing took the forty-five minutes that I’d guessed it would, and after reviewing the footage everyone made their way home.
I could only hope that the main shoot would go this well.
We had the venue for the shoot booked from ten in the morning with a totally guessed time of finishing at around eight in the evening, but we had the option of extending our time there just so long as we paid for the additional hours. The venue was a small community theatre/media studio based in the centre of Mansfield and we had the run of the whole building, with a young man called Jimmy Power caretaking the place and assisting us with the theatre’s lighting set-up.
Once everyone had found the parking facilities and made their way inside, we all started to unload our respective kit as I informally introduced those who didn’t know each other. As well as those present on the first shoot day (minus Tony) we had Jayne Hyman on special makeup duties, Sarah Kerry on sound, Gavin Mawditt as script supervisor, continuity assistant and driver, David ‘Dwyz’ Wayman as production photographer and Darren Maffucci, Chris Shiel and Paul Marsh as our demons.
The next task was to unpack all the snacks and drinks in case anyone had missed breakfast; anyone worth a damn in indie filmmaking will tell you that one of the most important things is to have plenty of food and drink available, after all if you’re not paying people you damn sure better feed them, you’ll only see the benefits, nothing puts people in a worst mood than being hungry, so just nip that in the bud and you’ll be that much closer to keeping your team in high spirits. After this I address the whole team about the order of the day and then we all got to work.
Jordan teamed up with Jimmy to create a lighting look for the set at the same time that I was dressing it, here we discovered our first issue of the day, Constantine wouldn’t be able to enter scene where we wanted him too, but this was a pretty easy fix, it’d just mean telling the actors to look in a different place to where they were going to.
Meanwhile, next door in the café area, the makeup girls got busy, and Dwyz set up his ‘portrait area’ so as each guy was done in makeup they’d be able to get some professional looking publicity shots done. After David was made-up he started reviewing his script as his single shots where first on the agenda while the demons were being made-up themselves, simultaneously Sarah started conducting sound tests in the set to decide which mic’ she would be rolling with.
Within an hour of arriving at the venue we were shooting our first scenes with Dave, and he was nailing his lines every time despite us skipping to different parts of the script. This was a massive relief, as unnecessary repeated takes would have most certainly put us back significantly [As a side note I’m always impressed, perhaps overly so, when actors can actually remember their lines; I’ve done some acting myself and find it to be a remarkably difficult skill to get a handle on], and I had already miscalculated how long it would take to set up for each shot, so we were already running a little slow.
I had four clipboards of which contained the broken down script, continuity references, storyboards and shot lists/schedules; I’m so glad I took the time to prep all these things as it eased the communication between myself, Jordan, Gavin and the actors no end, explanations of each intended shot meant simply referring the relevant person to the necessary board/script page/reference. Gavin, never having worked with Waking Dream before, got the hang of the system within a few shots and from there took it upon himself to prep the actors for the next shot as I did the same with Jordan, I also became heavily reliant on him keeping track of take numbers and character continuity, supervision over which, on top everything that I was dealing with, would most certainly have fried my brain. In short, totally of his own accord, Gavin became as valuable to me as his weight in gold.
Dave was knocking it out the park with his single shots and we were through them in no time, we even had time to film a little promo material, unfortunately, while this was happening, Jayne and Clare were having a few problems in makeup; Jayne’s airbrush had decided to be temperamental and Clare was having issues with the scars she was creating for Chris’s mouth. All this put makeup back by about an hour (all told getting all the characters shoot ready took between three and four hours). I only found out about these issues in small doses, never really finding out about the girth of the problems until after the fact, the guys were persevering without feeling the need to increase my stress levels, which was pretty great of them. They were given the time they required and without being rushed they produced excellent results.
The original plan was to get the wide shots next but due to the demons not all being ready we had to re-plan, which I’d already accommodated for by making the schedule modular, meaning we could shift huge chunks of the shot lists around without too much fuss. While I was sorting out
what came next, Dwyz took some time in the actual set to photograph Dave in what I wanted to be the poster image for the film, and boy, did he get an awesome image. Yet another testament to giving people the time they need to produce something great.
By now Darren, our second lead, was done in makeup, meaning I could get all his singles too. Like Dave, Darren nailed his lines every time, and we shot through all the scenes with ease, well nearly all, here we found that we weren’t able to get some of the shots we wanted with the selected lens and so started to veer away from the modular nature of the schedule, which wasn’t too much of a problem at this point but would go on to make things a little more complicated than they needed to be later in the day.
Despite things running relatively smoothly time was still running away with itself, we’d not got into the meat of the shoot yet, which is to say, the wide shots, and it was already getting on for mid afternoon, but the set was calm and everything was still running well.
We were getting the majority of the single shots of the demons as they were finishing in makeup, one at a time, and like before we found we were coming away from the laid out shots lists when necessary, again rendering things a little more complicated for later in the day, but Gav was keeping track so no biggy. Unfortunately about this time the major setback of the shoot started to rear it ugly head. Apparently our near soundproof set wasn’t nearly sound proof at all, we were getting intermittent beeps from somewhere and occasionally we’d have chatter that wasn’t from our own set interrupt the takes.
After an extended example of phantom chatter I investigated the set to find that there was a hidden door that adjoined us to the foyer of a museum next door (?!) which funnelled through remarkable amounts of sound. Here I rudely but in a polite manner asked if the family stood chatting in the foyer would mind either going into the museum or outside as we were making a film, they were very pleasant in response, but on asking a security man if he’d mind keeping people away from the secret door thing, he informed me that that was fine for now but later there was a show on at the Palace Theatre (two door along) and guests where welcome to enter the theatre bar through the adjoined museum, and probably would, in their droves (and I repeat… ?!). This would basically render the set unusable for sound, but I decided to worry about that when it actually became an issue.
We started to get the wide shots of all the characters at the poker table. I could already see at this point that we were going to need a significant extension of shooting time, but I didn’t worry anyone with the news at this point, energy was still high and we were getting some great footage. The wides gave Jordan much more scope to get movement in the shots, which he did with gusto and so at this point we could actually see how dynamic our film could turn out.
Equally the interplay between the actors was great; unfortunately I had to keep interrupting their flow between shots. We couldn’t move on to the next shots as fast as when we were doing the 50mm single shots because in the wides we had to concern ourselves with the continuity of the poker table, and though we were trying to shoot in order as much as we could, this was not always the case.
Sure, this too had been planned for, but rearranging around six hundred chips on a poker table according to carefully prepped, shot dependent, continuity references still took time. Add to this the girls having to run onto set to check and touch-up makeup between takes, and the introduction of further external props, and you’ll get a sense of the mini-chaos the set was slowly turning into. The energy levels were slowly reducing but it was actually being replaced with a sort of zen-like calmness that had everyone taking care of their own business with very little prompting from myself.
Happily prep time was far outstripping shoot time, I say happily because we rarely had to get more than three takes for each shot. Though kind of slowly, things were going swimmingly… and then the crowds started arriving next door for the show.
I called a break and sent out for food while myself and Jordan decided what we could do next, We’d hope it would all go silent again once the show started but we had no idea when that would be, also would it be noisy again for the intermission? It would certainly be noisy again once the show was finished.
We still had a number of dialogue free shots we could get but that’d mean being totally scatter shot with the lens switches, shot schedule and table continuity, adding much more work than would’ve originally been required, but needs must.
The noise eventually began to die down, but it was now gone seven o’clock in the evening, leaving us with only an hour left of our originally allotted time, and we were barely halfway through the shots, I knew we were in for at least another noisy hour, everyone was getting a little tired and Jordan’s back had started aching, he was keeping it to himself but the discomfort was noticeable.
Here I hit the filmmaker’s wall.
Any filmmaker that has been on a long or complicated shoot can tell you about hitting the wall, it’s the point where the film feels like it’s slipped away from you, where despite all the work you and everyone involved has put in so far, despite all the pre-production and all the great footage you’ve actually been getting, you just can’t see the end and you feel like jacking the whole thing in. I mean, it’s not a realistic option and it would be an incredible disservice to the cast and crew, but it’s such a tempting alternative.
You just have to suck it up, take stock and carry on, getting whatever footage you can. Now, to put it into a real context, a large quantity of the remaining shots were poker table inserts, which in theory shouldn’t take too long, but the table would have to be reset for this, which would take a while, and we still had some pretty hefty scenes to get; so in my head I couldn’t see how we were going to get this thing done before four in the morning, which there was no option but to do, though I REALLY didn’t want to put everyone through that.
Around this time I started apologising to everyone periodically and to my immense relief they all kept reassuring me that they were on board until the bitter end and not to worry about them (I still did).
We had finally been able to get back into the swing of getting the wides shot when Jimmy collared me and informed me that he needed to shoot off at ten, so that’s how long we had left… There was no way we would be done for then and there was no way I could get the people or funds together to shoot again any time soon. If the shoot was stopped the film was done, it would have all been a waste of everyone’s time, resources and money. I calmly/insistently informed him of all this, but he had a second job and he couldn’t be with us all night, but not being a jerk, he got on the phone to his boss to help come up with a solution.
By pure, stinking good luck, our sound girl, Sarah, happened to volunteer at the venue on occasion, so after a series of discussions Jimmy and Sarah were able to arrange it so that we could stay as long as Sarah was willing to as long as she was given enough time to learn how to work the security system. Quite how we all managed to remain so calm while this catastrophic situation was going down I’m not really sure, but when it was all dealt with we got on with things like nothing had happened.
We got a handful of major shots done before the noise from the museum started up again.
By this time I had already decided if this be the case we would set up to get all the poker table inserts, which would mean we’d have to set the table up three times instead of two, but again, needs must. We quietly and precisely started to get these shots in accordance with the reference pictures, but my brain was a bit numb by this point so it was taking me a while to get each stage straight in my head, but we were getting each shot in a take or two and if people were getting pissed off they kept it to themselves.
After this mini/epic task was complete, the noise had abated once more, but unfortunately the faint sound of town merriment on a Saturday night had kicked in, and that wouldn’t be done until God knows when; we’d just have to shoot and deal with the crap sound in post, although at this point I had the idea to set the film in the back room of a club (it was dark in there and you genuinely couldn’t tell what sort of room it was meant to be), the music and chatter that we’d layer in would more than adequately mask any sound issues.
It was gone eleven but we only had five more shots to get, finally the end was actually in sight, which picked up spirits somewhat and kept us barrelling on until the end, which turned out to be around twelve fifteen. We had shot for almost fifteen straight hours, five hours more than I’d estimated, and though I’d like to blame situations for the delays, in all frankness I think they only caused about two hours worth of wasted time, the rest was just poor estimation on my part, I reckon we would have run over by at least three hours no matter what.
Everyone was 100% exhausted by the time we’d completed the final shot, but everyone was still in incredibly high spirits, and so we collected together our stuff and the team slipped away a few at a time, copious amounts love and camaraderie abounding. All that was left to do now was for Jordan, Sarah and myself to pack away the filming kit, the set and close up the building; those poor guys, the last ones out despite the fact that Jordan was selflessly and silently managing a messed up back and Sarah had been similarly concealing the fact that she’d been sick as a dog all day.
I made my way home and on arrival had to just sit silently on the sofa with a can of pop for twenty minutes, doing nothing but winding down. That was the end of our shooting adventure, it had been a tough one and at this point I had no idea if the footage was going to come together, but we’d pulled off a hell of a thing.
The two-fold morals of this story are: A) All the planning ahead of time was necessary to the Nth degree; yes, it was a very long shoot and we faced numerous issues but without that solid foundation to work from we’d have been sunk almost immediately.
B) Always make sure you’re working with a fantastic team of easygoing, patient and talented people. I honestly can’t even imagine working with a better group of people than we had on this shoot, for every piece of bad luck we were compensated twice over with what each of these team members brought to the table.
Paul and Chris had never been through extensive makeup before, but did they complain while they were being worked on for two hours? No, they did nothing but bring much needed levity to the shoot. Did Darren put anything less than 100% into his performance despite the fact that he’d pulled a double shift the day before? Hells no, he consistently shocked us with his animated performance. Did David only concern himself with his lead role? No, he took it upon himself to roll his sleeves up and help out around set wherever he could. Did Jayne and Clare slink away after their initial jobs were done? No, they were on set for every minute of the shoot, making sure to correct their work at every given opportunity, not to mention sorting us out with food and cleaning the place up.
Lump that together with how Gavin, Sarah, Dwyz and Jordan’s previously mentioned above and beyond the call of duty work ethic had eased the potential pain of the shoot day and you’re pretty much getting the picture.
For my part I’m pleased to say that I retained my composure throughout the shoot, dealing with each issue calmly as it arrived. This is the wisdom I would wish to relay onto any budding future directors; you’re attitude is echoed by everyone else on set, so if you are putting out stress and anger vibes, shouting or fretting, you’re only going to agitate your team as a whole, but a calm director sets the standard for an easygoing set. You put the work in, you stay calm, you treat people with respect and they’ll do the same for you.
Now I had the post-production period to look forward to. How would the edit come together and what comes next for an ambitious fan film? We delve into this next time, so I hope to see you then.