Since the end of May, I've been directing 2nd Unit on a feature horror film in upstate New York. Here's the low down on this gig. This past week, 2nd Unit shot even more footage in the rain or in the water. I directed only one sequence without rain or flooding – and enjoyed working with one of the lead actors of the film in the process. In fact, his final night of work was spent shooting a scene with me on 2nd Unit. I can't reveal his name at this time, but his dad is the star of Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Death Proof (2007), and other titles familiar to genre film fans. If that's not a good enough clue – and I'm sure it is – you can figure out who this son of a famous film star is via a bit o' research on the ol' IMDB.
Last week, there were long stretches of time during which 2nd Unit didn't work at all – and then suddenly the assistant director would spring out of nowhere like an assassin and demand from me a complicated shot that had to be completed immediately.
One such shot was an intricate exterior shot featuring two of the lead actors, a third actor who was there for just that day, and two vehicles, all entering the frame with specific timing to end up where they needed to be as the camera move ended on them. Oh, and there was rain, of course – pouring from the rain towers, which had to be frantically set up in record time for me to get this shot before lunch.
"Before lunch" may not seem like a very intimidating term, but it has just about caused my head to explode multiple times on this shoot.
"I want you to get this shot before lunch," said the assistant director to me, just as the meal break was upon us. "Grace" is a fifteen minute period granted by cast and crew at the point when lunch was supposed to begin. If shooting goes over, and cast and crew don't go to lunch when they are supposed to, the production must pay everyone a "meal penalty" – a very expensive overtime bonus that, as you may guess, producers hate to pay. If it looks like we're not going to break for lunch on time, the assistant director asks cast and crew for "grace," which is an additional "free" fifteen minutes of work before everyone finally takes the meal break. If work continues past the fifteen minute "grace" period, everyone gets paid the meal penalty. (Cast and crew have the option of saying "no" to grace, meaning everyone gets the meal penalty bonus, or all work stops immediately and everyone goes to lunch. On this shoot, every time "grace" has been requested, the cast and crew have agreed to it.)
For the shot I described above, I was permitted to begin working on it at the beginning of "grace" – so I had exactly fifteen minutes to orchestrate the ballet of actors, vehicles, and camera. If I failed to get the shot in fifteen minutes, my window of opportunity would close because the sun would be down when we returned from lunch. Or, if I got the shot, but it took longer than fifteen minutes, production would go into meal penalty and I would be the one to take the blame. Sound stressful? That's just the tip of the iceberg…
I worked out the timing with the actors while the rain towers were being positioned and final set dressing took place. We did one run-through. By the time we started shooting, I had about five minutes left, and my brain was spinning.
At the exact same time I was racing to complete my exterior shot before "grace" ended, main unit was racing to complete an interior shot inside the very same house. Worse, as a result of some agonizingly frustrating scheduling, the very same front door that was in my exterior shot was in main unit's interior shot. They needed it open and I needed it closed. I did not know this until I was three takes into trying to get my shot.
Let's heap more on to try to give me a heart attack. I could not coordinate my shot from outside. My DP had his camera mounted on the top of a ladder and I could not see, from ground level, the small monitor on the camera to cue the actors and vehicles. The camera fed a monitor within the house, so I went inside, watched the shot there, and called out cues over the radio to my camera operator and the 2nd 2nd assistant director (who was out in the fake rain cuing my actors and vehicles as I called out instructions to him).
First take. The timing was off, so I called for everyone to reset to position one as quickly as possible. Second take. The timing was better, but still off. Worse, the script supervisor whispered in my ear that she could see in my shot a bit of the generator that was pumping our fake rain. I frantically called for the 2nd 2nd to fix the problem, and he had a PA race through the fake rain to quickly hide the pump behind some tree branches. I had three minutes left.
A small army of PAs were also working on my shot – but they were simultaneously taking instructions from main unit also, as we all yelled and rushed around to beat the clock. It was very chaotic, confusing, and stressful for those poor PAs, so I didn't blame them for a less-than-effective lockup that let a crew member walk into my shot during take three. I called for everyone to go back to position one – as quickly as possible. I had two minutes left.
Then the rain stopped. The generator powering the water pump had run out of fuel. I waited for the generator to be filled up as the clock continued ticking down. The crew was working fast, so the downpour returned soon and we were back in business.
Adding to the insanity of the moment was the fact that main unit was working all around me, and shooting their takes at the same time. My monitor was positioned right next to our director's monitor, so the two of us were sitting side by side, calling out cues and instructions, directing two completely different shots, exactly at the same time. Main unit crew were all around me, creating a cacophony of discussion about how to complete the shot they were on and what work needed to be started right after lunch. The noise was almost as distracting as the producers hovering silently nearby, making sure all this madness did not spill over into that dreaded meal penalty. I had one minute left - and I did not yet have the shot.
"Stanze… Stanze… Stanze…" …someone was saying my name over and over. I was zoned in on my work, tuning out all the racket, so it took a few seconds to realize someone was calling for me. It was one of the producers, who instructed me to stop shooting. I glanced around. Main unit was working top speed, so lunch had not yet been called. Why did I have to stop? Because the fucking front door that needed to be closed for my shot needed to be open for the shot main unit was getting.
I looked at my monitor. Camera was set in its position one for my shot. I could see the front door in the shot, and it was now open. I peered at my monitor closely, trying very hard to concentrate with all the noise and activity going on around me. Only the bottom part of the door could be seen in my shot, and when the door was open, it just went dark within the doorframe. You could not see into the house or tell that the door was open. I made a split-second decision. "One more take," I said - and before this began a discussion, I rapidly radioed outside, told the PAs that it was okay to leave the door open, and instructed my cast and crew that we were going again.
We rolled camera, I called out cues for the camera move, the actors, and the vehicles. The timing was perfect. The actors and vehicles hit their marks exactly, and everything looked precisely how I wanted it to look in the frame. I held my breath, looking for more junk in the shot, waiting for another crew member to walk into frame… but nothing went wrong. It looked awesome. I called cut. I radioed to everyone that we'd completed the shot and that we were not doing any more takes. About ten seconds later, lunch was called.
I felt like collapsing, but instead I went around and thanked my crew for doing such great work under pressure. Then I quietly boarded one of the fifteen-passenger vans with the rest of the crew, and was whisked away to eat lunch.
Thanks for reading.