Marshall laughed at me because I told him I had never worked on a film before. Walking away, he put the last of his cases on the deck of the house. I was sitting awkwardly against my car trying to feign my nervous anticipation while he still chuckled to himself. We were both in the front yard of a farmhouse in Leesburg, Virginia – the main location of the shoot.
Marshall and I were the only two there. It was a preparation day for the camera department. He was renting the equipment to our production and I just happened to be the first one to arrive. I looked up the driveway to see if anyone else was showing up. I could tell there wasn’t. Gravel usually gives away anything that approaches.
The name of the vessel I was cruising full sail on my maiden voyage was “Ghosts Don’t Exist.” An independent film being produced by Washington, D.C. based production company “19th and Wilson.” The budget was tiny and, as a result, the cast was largely unknown and the crew underpaid. One of the main reasons that the film ever came to be was the attachment of Washington Redskins player, and local favorite, Chris Cooley as an executive producer. Much like the movie itself, my involvement with Ghosts Don’t Exist was closely tied within Cooley.
“Well, what should I expect?” I asked Marshall with my arms crossed.
“On a low-budget feature horror film?” He gave me a wry smile. “People will become friends, people will fight, then they’ll become friends again by the end.” Then he took a moment to pause and finish his thought, “at least, that’s the idea.”
It’s not like I had never made a movie before. I am a proud YouTube user who has hundreds, if not thousands, of hits. I remember back in the day editing school projects using two VHS tape decks. My first movie was called “The Flood,” it took place in my bathtub when I was 12, and my latest named “Doppelganger,” out of a lack of originality.
But I had never worked on a set before. At least not the kind of sets a boy from the suburbs of Virginia thinks of. The kind of bustling atmosphere where there’s always two people carrying a large ladder, lights are hoisted high in the air, the director is yelling for their latte and the poor production assistant who gets it is fired because, by God, this was the fourth time he was told four creamers and two scoops of sugar. No, that stuff was always left for those out in Los Angeles or New York. Virginia is miles away from those hubs of the industry. And to a young boy, it feels that way. In Virginia, the closest I had come to a movie set was a few friends who knew nothing about a camera but wanted to be a part of making a movie. People get excited when they can be a part of making a movie, including myself.
I love making movies. All at once making a movie is an adventure of the imagination, an exploration of art, and a challenge of logistics. Making a movie has always sought to pit the creative mind versus the technological limitation. What is so entirely rewarding about the process, however, is finding ways to make a story come alive in the context of available resources. As my teacher Paul would say, “creativity is problem solving.”
For example, on my latest movie, there is a shot where I needed a flicker effect from a TV. Well, the TV wasn’t bright enough and I didn’t have any movie lights. Instead, I walked over to the vertical blinds on the glass door in front of the character, ripped off one of the blinds, and before each take I ran my hand along the blinds so that they would sway causing light to “flicker” on his face. In the industry they call this “movie magic.”
While Marshall finished packing up what was left in his truck, I resorted to acting busy on my phone. Everyone knows this game – pretend there’s an email to read or a text to send. Pantomiming either action is usually more bearable than standing up against the awkward silence. It had been close to twenty minutes by now and I was starting to wonder if this was all a mistake.
And what a mistake it would’ve been. I didn’t just stumble upon this job and show up one day; I had worked hard for it and juggled much of my schedule around to make it fit. The shooting was to begin around May 1st, but I was still in classes until May 15th. I spent a good part of my time in April convincing professors to not only let me leave early, but to finish up the assignments necessary to be able to. Essentially I crammed a month’s left of work into a week and a half or two. I had wanted so desperately to be on a movie set and get my foot in the door, I probably would’ve taken the job without my professor’s blessings anyway.
I had first heard about “Ghosts Don’t Exist” back around February of 2009 by reading Chris Cooley’s blog, The Cooley Zone. One day there was a post about an independent film being made in Leesburg, VA – a close 30 minute drive for me. The production company was also listed on this announcement and I thought it was time to take a shot in the dark. After researching 19th and Wilson, I sent an e-mail to their general contact offering to take any job – ANY job – with low to no pay, as long as I got to be on the movie set. Not soon thereafter, Aaron Goodmiller, the CEO, responded thanking me for my interest and asking for my resume to send on to the Unit Production Manager. After a few weeks of limbo and talking to Gavin Peretti, the first A.D via phone, I was put in the camera department as a production assistant.
That’s what I was to Marshall, which is probably why he laughed. I was the wide-eyed camera P.A. about to embark on a low budget, month long shoot that he knew was going to be grueling. Finally, standing against my car trying to search for signal, a car drove up. Then another car. The first assistant camera, the digital imaging technician, and the cinematographer, Kunitaro Ohi had all arrived and we began to prep.
I learned a lot that first day from merely watching. How to hand off lenses, how to set-up a slate, how to build the camera. What was the most strange, perhaps, was that before then I had felt somewhat knowledgeable about technology and films; but this was starting at square one.
The next day, there was a complete prep day for all departments, including camera again. I arrived on set to many more people, trucks, lights, tents. It was a brash change from the empty house we had heard echoes in all day the day before. I began introducing myself to people, mostly to the ones who looked my age, intimidated by the older professionals.
I remember many things from that day: standing-in for some camera tests on gel-packs while Kuni made fun of my pink lips (they were chapped!), learning how to mark actors and trying to tear paper tape quite unsuccessfully, as well as conversing with many people who were as nice as could be. It was a fun atmosphere and it didn’t feel like work.
But this was all before Day 1 of even shooting. There were still many questions I had about myself and my abilities. There was no 2nd Assistant Camera on set, so, as the camera PA I essentially was going to assume the role doing the responsibilities that 1st A.C. Matt Kelly couldn’t fulfill. He had taught me how to log camera reports, slate properly, and gave me “The Camera Assistant’s Handbook,” with Kuni chiming in, “That’s your bible for the month.”
I took it home that night and read furiously, focusing on the chapters that I thought I needed to know immediately. I figured some of the more theoretical stuff I could always come back to. My goal for Day 1 of shooting, heck for the whole shoot, was simple: “Don’t slow everyone else down.”
In part 2 of this series, discover the hectic schedule, the delicious food, and the burning heat of production.
Part 2 – Production
Part 3 – Aftermath