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Confessions of a Working Director - 11/16/2009

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On Thursday, November 6th, Jim Wayer and I hit the road for Margaretville, NY.  I'm returning to the production of Jim Mickle's Stake Land.  The first half of the shoot was in the Philadelphia area last August/September.  The second half is being shot this month in upstate New York.  Jim Wayer is with me this time, as he is working this shoot as a grip (which is something Jim does very well).  So on this trek east, the two day drive was a little less maddening because there was someone else in the car to talk to.

The drive took us first to a hotel in Medina, OH, where we crashed for the night.  Medina is the nearest town to the beautiful abandoned amusment park we shot in for Deadwood Park.  This was the first time I had been back in the area since we shot those scenes.

The next day, our drive took us up to Lake Erie and then on into New York.  The last two hours of our drive took us only farther and farther away from big towns and major highways.  At night, driving back roads deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory was spooky and exciting.  The full crew was not to arrive for another two days, so we were going to be crashing at someone's home until crew accomodations were open.  Google Maps led us, in the middle of the night, onto smaller and smaller roads, until eventually the directions led us to a narrow dirt road - more like a path - that wound its way up the side of thickly wooded hill.  At first, I didn't want to take the uninviting, creepy road, thinking that perhaps Google Maps had led us astray.  Jim urged me on and my Saturn rolled forward, into the deep shadows of the woods - right past several "No Tresspassing" signs.  It would seem we were doomed.

After carefully navigating the dirt path for a few minutes, growing more and more certain we'd soon be shot at, the house lights of our destination glowed through the trees.  We crept closer, still nervous that this might not even be the right house.  Then we saw 1st AD Aaron Crozier's car parked in front of the house.  First we were relieved - then completely amazed that we even found the place!

I'm directing second Unit on Stake Land, so the next day was spent travelling around to all the various locations selected for 2nd Unit shots.  Jim Mickle was good at communicating his needs for 2nd Unit footage, yet he was extremely generous and trusting in giving me freedom to do things my way.

The first prep day ended at a party at executive producer Larry Fessenden's house.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, I'm a big fan of Larry's films, so it was interesting to attend a party at his place.  Somehow Larry and I ended up drinking and talking in the treehouse he built for his kid, while the bonfire and party bustled below.  I didn't want to dominate his time, but he and I talked filmmaking alone up there for a good while, which I appreciated... I also appreciated how weird it was having this conversation in a tree house in the middle of the night!  I did not realize until that evenng that Larry now lives in the house that Wendigo was shot in.  The horror film fan boy in me found it quite awesome to be there!

The next day was another day of 2nd Unit prep.  Then came day one of production on Stake Land in upstate NY.  For 2nd Unit, I had 21 setups on my list, spread out over 10 different locations.  For those of you who have never shot a movie - that's intimidating.  Getting 21 setups at just a single location means you're moving pretty efficiently.  Adding all that travel time eats up a lot of the day, making getting all of your shots much more difficult.

At dawn, my DP, two camera assistants, my art director, one set dressing assistant, my driver, and the Stake Land line producer were ready to get day one underway.  Unfortunately, 80 percent of my shots included the hero picture car of the film - which refused to start.  My crew and I ran out and started shooting anyway, grabbing beauty shots of the scenery and POV shots from the passenger window of another vehicle.  Back at home base, the line producer called in a mechanic and worked quickly to get the car running for me again.  For the first three hours of my day, I was without my "star" - the damn car.  A huge setback.

After three hours, I had my picture car back and we started rushing from location to location, grabbing our shots and trying to get back on schedule.  I'm happy to report that 2nd Unit was back on schedule by lunch.  In fact, my crew arrived for the meal break twenty minutes before 1st Unit arrived.

After lunch it was back to work.  Because of the short winter days, the sun began to near the horizon and the mostly overcast day started getting dark at 2:30 pm!  So this ramped up my anxiety in getting all of my shots before the daylight was gone. 

By 5:45 pm, there was not enough light left in the sky to shoot under.  However, I was not only successful in getting all 21 of my shots, but I was able to deliver a half-dozen or so bonus shots as well.

This was my first time directing 2nd Unit for another director.  And Stake Land, though an independent film, has a much bigger budget than any of the features I've directed.  It was important for me to be victorious in my 2nd Unit duties.  Day one of this Stake Land shoot left me exhausted but happy with 2nd Unit's success.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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