I'm currently in upstate New York directing 2nd Unit on a feature horror film that I've learned I am not supposed to discuss, working for a director I cannot mention by name… yet. Week one of five is now behind us on this super-top-secret production. I'll be here through the end of June, attempting to blog about my activities without divulging too much about the film. Hmm, pretty tricky – but lemme see what I can do here.
There is a lot of rain in this script. Most of week one involved rain towers creating torrential downpours. Cameras, gear, and crew were constantly enveloped in plastic sheets to stay dry-ish. Water and mud have become the most common sights on set.
The last day of week one was this past Saturday. Finally, on this day there were no rain towers dumping water on everyone. So cast and crew got to stay dry, right? Nope. The entire night was spent shooting on and in a lake. Special effects crew, art department, and camera department were constantly in and out of the water on this abnormally freezing night. They all had waders on, so they didn't have it quite as bad as the actors, who at least had wetsuits on under their wardrobe as they hauled a dead body from the drink, take after take. I stayed dry all evening and I was still freezing my butt off. I did not envy those who were taking frequent dips into the cold water.
My day actually began that morning, several hours before the main unit started shooting on the lake. 2nd Unit was assigned to shoot a montage of a "flood benefit festival" being set up. My crew and I went out and made shots of picnic tables being placed, tablecloths being spread out, a band setting up, a beer wagon preparing to open for business, etc. We only shot for two hours, but we probably got enough footage for our director/editor to assemble a five minute montage out of it if he wanted to. The sequence will, in reality, last only a few seconds, if it makes it into the film at all.
For those of you who don't know, that is the sort of thing a 2nd Unit director does. Pretty glamorous, eh? On many films, main unit will shoot a scene until the dialog is finished and the actors are wrapped, and then a 2nd Unit will come in with doubles for the actors and get the close ups of mugs being picked up, lamps being turned on, and such – basically, shots the director feels he has no time for or need to be around for. Another way 2nd Unit may function is by taking on elaborate montages, transition shots, and/or complicated special effects shots. This way, the director and actors can be working on dialog scenes while the more visually impactful – but far more time consuming – shots are being made elsewhere. This is more or less how 2nd Unit works on big-budget films and low-budget indies alike, except that on a big studio film, 2nd Unit is there primarily to make impressive shots and montages without soaking up the time of the director and the highly-paid actors. On a low budget indie film, 2nd Unit is more about keeping the production on schedule, and giving the director all the shots he or she wants without adding costly days to the shoot.
No, it is not glamorous at all – but that's fine by me. I am happy to be a small but important cog in this machine, I really do enjoy the work, and having directed my own features, I appreciate the opportunity to be a visual storyteller without the pressure of the entire movie on my shoulders. Our director has to carry the bulk of responsibility in terms of schedule, coverage, and most of all, the quality of the finished film. If the movie gets bad reviews, the director will take the heat - nobody is going to blame the 2nd Unit director. For me, working without that pressure is a rather nice change of pace.
The last time I directed 2nd Unit was on Stake Land. There was no 2nd Unit on the shoot originally. I was added halfway through when the production started to slip a bit behind schedule – or maybe new shots were being added without extending the schedule. My crew and I would go off and shoot a lot of "car on the road" footage and other montage bits and pieces while Jim Mickle was directing dialog scenes at another location. This kept the shoot on schedule without forcing Jim to cut shots he wanted for the movie.
On this film currently in production, there is a lot more 2nd Unit work than I was given on Stake Land. We are now in week two – it's very hectic, but the shoot is going well.
Thanks for reading.