At thirty-nine years old one would hardly expect to find themselves hiding out in a garage from an independent film crew, but that’s exactly where I was at that precise moment. To be clear, not only was I hiding from the crew, but I was slamming beers in my garage, sitting on a bench with a cardboard pillow. The SFX crew had already left and as Production Designer, I was spent. In the days prior, I had turned our house into a film set using paints and molding, peg boards, models, jars, furniture, and Lysol wipes. I had moved all the fiberglass insulation from one side of our ancient attic to a hidden portion behind the stairs…moved in the heat, dripping sweat, itchy from sweeping the fiberglass dust left on the floorboards.
My wife and I had spent weeks preparing the costumes, with a specific color pattern, our usual cartoonish look with Victorian accents this time. The house had been built in 1897 and was the childhood home of former State of Illinois Governor George Ryan. I knew this because he had just introduced himself a few days prior as I was pressure washing the vinyl siding, in the heat, in preparation for the exterior shots. “Hi, I’m George. I grew up here.” I knew who he was. I knew where he had been. But we were now neighbors and when a neighbor says hello, it’s a requirement to wave, or to indicate their presence, maybe shake hands. The house is too big for just two people, but it would make a good set, I was sure of it—but there was still much work ahead.
The week of production we had SFX to finish. We had decided on going all practical with the effects, meaning that we would not be utilizing any digital after-effects. This was going to be old school, but there was a price for doing it the old way. I was off the Lombard to help SFX Supervisor Jim (as much as I could) with the gigantic latex membrane that was to be placed in our doorframe. The creature design was coming along, and Jim would eventually have it nailed down when the time came. But that was only one iron in the fire. Kim was desperately trying to get final approval for the camera, an Arri Amira, along with the lenses and sound equipment—but there had been a hiccup. She was using a Director of Photography (DP) from outside of the DePaul Cinematic Program and therefore the equipment cage needed more background information on Blake (the DP). On Wednesday, Kim (my wife and the director) received confirmation and was allowed to proceed with the equipment checkout, as planned, for that Friday. This is, of course, only after we had spent funds renting a crane and a grip truck in preparation for the four-day shoot. Stress was at an all time high.
Kim and I have been shooting films together since we met. I was introduced to my wife via a third party who wanted to adapt one of my short stories for a short film. In walks Kim (the DP for that project) who would go on to become the most important person in my life. We are a team and we always have been. Filmmaking is a hard business and independent filmmaking is almost torture. Kim and I had disagreements on set and those disagreements sometimes turned into shouting matches, when crunched for time, which was always. I wanted to make sure that with this film, her thesis film, I would take a step back and allow her the freedom she deserved to create. While it is true that I had written the piece, it was Kim’s film to direct, and I didn’t want to inject any of my bullshit into it, save a few whispered tips or suggestions.
So, why now was I sitting in the garage drinking beer and avoiding the actual set? Because I didn’t have a place. As the Production Designer, the SFX crew had left, and the sets were dressed. Sure, I could move a light or organize equipment, but I was tired of listening to the compromises that Kim had been making—not to me, but to other crew members. I was angry that she was losing sight of her vision and was using coverage over confidence. I didn’t want to say anything, I had tried using statistics and data via an excel spreadsheet that morning, but that only caused fear.
We had two days left and 23 shots remaining. There was no way that they were going to finish. The lighting setups were long, the locations were being moved from their scheduled dates, and as such they required the lights be torn down and set back up again. There was no power in the attic. We had LED lights, but we were going with the monster HMIs and Tungstens. The natural lighting emanating from outdoors into the attic windows had been blocked off with red and blue gels and curtains, as was the case with most of the windows being used. All were gelled or covered. The attic had morphed from creepy attic to creepy attic with funhouse lighting. But this wasn’t my vision. I had written the script and I had my own vision, but this was not my film. As writers, we must let go. As writers, we must step back. As writers, we must hear others explain our words to others, whether accurate or inaccurate. A screenplay is a gift. We gift our stories to others so that they may tell them…because if we did not, then we must tell them, and if we do not feel like telling them and we give them away, then we have no right to complain when others turn our stories into their projects.
I sat and drank in my garage and stayed away. So many miles on these fingers. So many stories, and late nights, and stress dreams, and preproduction. I had just left my job to pursue writing fulltime and now I was sitting in a garage avoiding my own feelings. There would be other stories to tell. There would be other indie shoots. Goddamnit, I’m so old now. Everything hurts.
I spent the last day helping out where I could, but by that time my stamina was spent, and I was just following instructions. I moped a bit…There was so much left to do. Lighting. Lighting always takes so much time. And then you hear the dreaded word, “Reversal” which means that everything must be moved out of frame and reset and you look at your watch out of habit and then remember that you took it off so that you wouldn’t be tempted to call out the time. I eventually completed my SFX gig and found myself on top of my bed. They continued to shoot while I drifted off, away from time, away from stress, away from compromise.
After all was said and done when they wrapped, Kim woke me up to tell me that I needed to eat something. I went downstairs and had leftover Mexican food. The footage sat there on the hard drive. It existed. It was wrapped. There were going to be some pickup days, possibly, and one scene needed to be filmed, but that scene would be shot on a DSLR, so most of the film if not all of it was finished. But we dare not speak of it. We dare not jinx ourselves. Best to avoid looking at it. Best to remove it from our minds as we couldn’t handle another second of filming or stress.
It was Saturday when we finally took out the footage after resting for a few days. All of that work. Months of planning. Nights of terrible sleep. My knees, aching from sitting in a boiling attic breathing in dust for an entire day. The HDMI cable went into our living room television, and we began scanning the footage. It was beautiful. It was completely different from what I had imagined, but it hit its mark hard and from an editing standpoint, it looked as though the pickups may be few and far between. There would be days of foley and sound design, music composition, color, exports, ect, but the footage was there. It was real, even if I had escaped the set—the film had been made in my absence and Kim had indeed directed, even if she had made a few compromises.
Time. In the end, you can have all the time in the world to complete projects, and for the most part, you do. It’s when the idea is molded and shaped into a physical reality and recorded onto a format that you start to lose that time. Plan. Always have a plan, and a backup plan, and another backup plan. Confidence. Be confident in your shots—if it looks good to you, play it back and then move on. It can always be better. We can always make better films, if given enough time, but the value of time (as much as we have) only becomes apparent when there is a strict deadline. “You must shape these words into a world, but you only have a few days to get it done.”
The question of whether a director or a producer is ever truly happy with a film that they’ve created has no answer. We can enjoy parts of our creations. We can recall behind the scenes moments that are either fun or terrible. We will never view the film as a member of the audience. Once the story is created into a physical representation, we do not get to enjoy seeing this world come alive. For filmmakers, we are the puppet masters pulling the strings. You cannot live both inside the audience and still have a home on the stage. This is the price of creating film, and this is how we choose to spend our time, which we understand has more value as we start to burn through it and age. We all have so many stories to tell, fatigue be damned. We are all given such a short time to accomplish all of our creative endeavors. We are all given so little time to matter.