The following story is the second in a series of entries exploring Evan’s experience with his first job on a film set working as the 2nd Assistant Camera for “Ghosts Don’t Exist,” which will be released on DVD in two weeks. The series is divided into three parts: Pre-Production, Production and Aftermath. For Pre-Production (Part One), go here.
Before I even slapped the sticks on take 1, I apprehensively was practicing in front of the camera, totally aware of the speed-bump I could be to the flow of a scene if I screwed up. Finally, we were ready to roll on the first scene of day 1, which also happened to be one of the last scenes of the movie.
I don’t recall exactly, but I feel like I jumped the gun after our first A.D. yelled, “Roll sound.” I started slating before the camera was up to speed. On a side note about slating: many people find the job nerve-racking, having the entire crew watch you, wait for the mark and wait for you to get out of the way quietly. There is a certain pressure, especially since a loud, “second sticks!” alerts everybody that you screwed up. That’s no excuse, however, because as far as I am concerned, everybody on a film set is under pressure from the PA’s to Craft Services to the Boom Op to the Director.
As far as my personal feelings on slating? I love it. There’s just something about having that moment right before the scene starts. I think a large part of it has to do with slating be an integral part of what we grow up learning about how movies are made. “You mean I get to do the clap thing?” On more than one occasion I’ve had talent or extras or friends ask if they could hold the sticks and play pretend. It’s just fun. You get to yell, slap some wood together and then you get out.
Getting out, although, proved to be incredibly difficult in the old house we were filming. It’s important to note that our main location for the shoot, some 15 days or so, took place in an old farmhouse in Leesburg, VA. It’s also important to note that that farmhouse had the creakiest wood floors in the world. Getting out of the way after I slated usually meant running to a corner and never shifting my weight throughout the scene. One shift from my left leg to my right leg could compromise the sound with a nice “eeeek!” I spent many days on that set crouched in the most uncomfortable positions staring at my feet.
Well, Day 1 flew by. If there is anything that surprised me about my first day, it was how fast 12 hours went when we were shooting. I felt good about myself, having kept up to the original promise to myself not to slow anybody down. Although I will take time to apologize to the cinematographer, Kunitaro Ohi, about my slow slating drawl (I go much faster now), but I like to think I redeemed myself by knowing how to do a tail-slate without anybody telling me. (A tail-slate is when you clap the sticks at the end of a take, rather than the beginning, for many a reason)
A tail-slate is one of the many practices I learned on the set that nobody bothers to teach in school. In film school nobody tells you the proper place to look at an actor during a scene (anywhere but their eyes, the belt is usually a good spot). Nobody teaches you how to tab tape while ripping it at the same time. Nobody even gives you an inkling of what it’s like to hustle for 12 hours in a day hauling gear. What Ghost’s Don’t Exist became for me was the film school I never attended. Between the first AC, Matt Kelly, the cinematographer, Kuni, and countless other crew I learned a great deal.
After the first day I remember coming home exhausted from a full day and a 45-minute commute each way, but I was also estatic. Much like anybody else feels on their first day of any job or career, I was pestered: “What if I hate the job?” My question had been answered and I loved it. I’ve heard many people complain about AC work but I found it fascinating. Being in camera affords you the ability to be on set at ALL times unlike some of the other crew positions.
Being a 2nd assistant camera is a particularly sweet gig as well because the pressure within the department is so lopsided away from the 2nd. The first AC has to deal with the pressure of focus pulling, the loader (or data loader, to a much lesser extent) has to deal with the pressure of dealing with the raw product. A 2nd AC gets to float between the two allowing not only for much less pressure but also the perfect environment in which to thrive and learn.
I found myself constantly stopping to watch the giant motion picture machine that surrounded me. Suddenly all those names deep in the credits of Hollywood films meant something to me. I knew what a grip did. I knew why there were so many electrics. It really gave me a deeper appreciation for cinema and those who work within and not only that but a greater appreciation for those who work below-the-line.
The first week of Ghosts Don’t Exist blazed by, as far as I can remember. When you work long days in one location everything seems to blend together. I became better friends with crew and cast and we all bonded a lot. I couldn’t help in the middle of the shoot what Marshall had told me before about everyone fighting – I hadn’t seen it yet. Sure there were a few bickers or tense moments, but nothing that caused anybody to draw lines in the sand. In the end, emails were being sent out to the “GDE Family” because that’s what we became.
Part of that familiarity came from Eric Espejo, the director and writer. It seemed as if everyday Eric was humbled by the sheer fact that so many people were working so hard for him and that only made us want to kick ass more. At the end of each shooting day when we wrapped Eric came by and shook everybody’s hand. He also made sure he was the last to eat food at lunch breaks. He was a real class act and I would kill to work for him again it was such a pleasure. He had such control over his material and such appreciation for those working for him. It’s a rarity in any line of work you find somebody with all those qualities.
That earnest appreciation became invaluable as the shoot started to transition over to nights. I don’t recall off the top of my head how many days we shot at nights, but it was at least 10. Dinner time calls and morning wraps became the norm. Being cold, being in the dark and being tired was the protocol. Chipotle for breakfast and breakfast for dinner.
Sleep. Shoot. Sleep. Shoot.
My friends started to comment on how I had fallen off the face of the earth. Tensions arose between a girl I had been talking to and had failed to keep in contact with. That’s another thing nobody teaches you in film school – how to deal with an aggressive shooting schedule and social relationships. I’m sure there’s a psychology paper out there somewhere on the topic.
The nights seemed to drag much longer than the first week had. As you settle into a rhythm I guess you also sort of settle out of the initial excitement. Shooting becomes much more serious and demanding. We started to cut shots or shoot faster to make up for lost time. The fact that the film was finished on schedule is attributable to Eric, Gavin Peretti (1st A.D.), Jean-Paul Chreky (Script Supervisor) and Kuni for accommodating and warping the shot list into something that matched continuity and Eric’s vision.
I also started to get less sleep during the night shoots. It’s hard to come home during the day and sleep all through it, though I managed to on a few occasions. The peak of our tiredness came when we shot in the now infamous “Satan’s Armpit,” named after a particularly scorching room in the corner of the house.
For sound purposes, the air conditioning is usually turned off on any set and well, when you’re shooting fast it doesn’t usually get turned back on. And while in the larger rooms the 81 degrees was bearable, we happened to be in a tiny bedroom with five or more crew and a Red camera that shoots out heat like a flamethrower from a Rambo movie. It got really hot. I admire our actor, Joe Hansard, for not complaining and doing the scene as he did. If there was any time on Ghosts Don’t Exist I absolutely did not want to be there, it was those few hours we were smooshed into that hotbox of a bedroom.
But, like most days or nights on the shoot, we always pulled through. And yes there were times when I was tired and wanted to go home, but those times were vastly outnumbered by the experiences that kept me coming back everyday addicted to the production.
There were times on Ghosts Don’t Exist where I felt genuinely lucky to have gotten this job. One of those days was when I walked into Chris Cooley’s home to shoot and turned to my left and saw dozens of game-balls and NFL jerseys. He even had a helmet signed by John Elway. Where else could I have a job that affords me to nonchalantly walk into a pro-bowl NFL player’s house and eat breakfast on his couch and be working?
Many people ask me about Cooley and he is a great guy. He’s nice, personable and opened his house for us to film in. We treated it with great care and I thank the Cooley’s for allowing us to be there and being very cool about it. I didn’t talk much to Chris, only joking a few times about how we wished there was beer on set or talking about his dogs, one named George and the other Taylor (after late NFL Redskins player Sean Taylor).
Cooley wasn’t the only local celebrity I met, however. Lindsay Czarniak of NBC 4 played a reporter and we talked about our respective (rival) high schools. Mike O’Meara came in for a scene. And just like the GDE family, they were all welcomed and fit in great. If there was one theme about this movie it was that everybody wanted to do their best including the cameos.
It was fitting that much like the first scene we shot being the last scene of the movie, that we would shoot the first scene of the movie as our last. And when they called wrap I was so proud of myself. I had just put myself through a crash course of camera assisting for a month and not only that but I loved what I was doing.
I got the CF card from the first AC and trotted down to the data loading station and Matt West (our D.I.T./Editor) singing “The Final Countdown.” It was at Cooley’s house where the wrap party was and some had already arrived to celebrate and thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. It was an awesome feeling and one I don’t know if I’ll feel again for awhile. The sheer exuberance of what I had experienced was immeasurable. Now I only had to wait a short 10 months to see the film…
Part 1 – Pre-Production
Part 3 – Aftermath