What happens after months of planning, fundraising, coordinating schedules and stretching every dollar? Principle Photography.
On May 16, 2013, I made the trip from NJ to NYC to pick up our cast and crew for the 42 Seconds of Happiness shoot. This was the first time ever that I was making a film with more cast than crew. We had 10 cast members and a very small but dedicated crew: Writer/Director/EP: Christina Kallas, Producer: Allison Vanore, DP: Dave Sharples, Sound Mixer: Jason Obenschain, Camera Op: Ben Neufeld, Boom Op: Daniel Lugo, DIT/Catering: Rob Gokee, Camera/Production Assistants: Erik Smith and Holland Farkas and BTS: Alex Gloor. Along the way I also picked up some rented and borrowed equipment. Luckily we have extremely supportive people around us which made our limited budget possible on every level: transportation, equipment, location, catering, craft services, art dept and of course, the many donors and supporters since the beginning of this process.
We embarked on a journey to shoot a feature length movie with up to 3 cameras and 10 cast members at a time for extended takes. Yes, the stress level was high. No one really knew how well this would work. All we knew is that we had months and months of preparation and extremely talented people. In the indie world, that’s really the best formula to have. That, and a lot of trust.
Let’s talk about trust for a moment. There we were, with 10 actors and almost as many crew members and only 3 of us had read the full script. There were two reasons for that. First, Christina had been working with the actors/characters for more than a year – but until they had experienced together fully the story leading up to the film, we wouldn’t know what would happen in it. Second, the point behind Christina’s process is that the authenticity of experience and feeling of being “in the moment” is more important than anything else. Christina was only going to give cast and crew the info she felt they needed prior to each scene. This kept it fresh and spontaneous – and all of us alert and open to surprises. Sometimes that meant actors didn’t receive their pages but the night before, others directly before the scene. Sometimes actors, especially those who weren’t driving a specific scene, didn’t receive anything prior to that scene. Christina had a strategic plan for when she would give which pages to which cast member. Her goal was to keep the emotional intensity alive that she had been able to create in the room, this time combining it with a screenplay of classic structure while at the same time allowing for accidents to happen – and embracing such accidents and including them in the story. If you ask her, she will say that this would not have been possible if she hadn’t worked with the actors for a year on the story and characters. She will also say that this is only possible with professional actors who have solid improv experience and who are able to work from a screenplay and still go off on a riff where the occasion arises. If you ask me: That’s a lot of trust. Christina’s instructions to the actors were: you can do no wrong, you can take your time, you are free to move as you want, do not be afraid of silence or time going by without action, do not be afraid of anything, you are the center of this universe.
I can’t give too much away. I will say that we had quite a few surprises for the actors and the crew, and the result of withholding information made for remarkable moments within the film.
One of the biggest challenges that we had outside of the specific nature of the film and our limited crew and budget (as if that’s not enough) was that we were shooting for only 5 intense days. This stemmed from Christina and her experience shooting hundreds of hours of footage for the 42 Seconds of Happiness webseries. She knew the formula. If we shot about 42 (sic) hrs of material we’d end up with about 100 minutes of finished (edited) footage. Or, like we continued to joke on set, we were making an epic trilogy. We won’t really know until we get into the editing room.
Some of the most amazing scenes to experience for me were the Intervention, the Dinner and the Swing Set. I know these don’t mean anything to you but they were packed with emotion and beauty. Not to say there aren’t many other scenes that tug at your heart and soul but I can’t give those away.
Our success isn’t possible without the sheer talent of our amazing cast: Lauren Sowa (Alis), Robert Z. Grant (Tomas), Catherine Cobb Ryan (Vineke), Toni Robison-May (Felice), Chris Veteri (Ike), Laura Pruden (Sila), John J Concado (Marc), Becca Ayers (Cybil), Margaret Kelly Murphy (Maria), and Vandit Bhatt (Ben). They brought their talent and dedication and held it for hours on end. There were moments where I, from behind the camera, was shaking and close to tears. What a performance by all!
We were lucky to have Director of Photography, Dave Sharples, on our team. Dave was ready to go and lead the charge to shoot handheld for scenes that lasted over an hour per take! Thankfully he’s had years of experience at NFL Films and gigs like shooting the World Series of Poker that prepped him for shooting like this. And even when doubt could have taken over, we always got beautiful shots and unwavering effort from Dave.
Sound. Oh boy did we have our work cut out for us. If anything made me nervous it was making sure we captured sound from all of our actors on (and sometimes off) screen. And with that many actors and no clear idea of where the actors or cameras would go, we couldn’t get a boom close to a lot of the action. Additionally, 10 actors mic’d and mixed at the same time really is a two mixer job – due to our resources that wasn’t an option. Still, the amount of gear you need for a shoot like this doubles. Luckily we remedied both in a way that worked. We had one extremely dedicated Sound Mixer, Jason (who I don’t believe ever slept during those 5 days) and our Boom Op, Daniel, and a donation of gear that got us to our 11 channel goal. Also, an area of our location where most of the action took place was laid out in a way that allowed us to boom from above. It wasn’t easy but we got through it. I think Jason is still hearing 10 voices in his head.
I suppose the big question is: Did it work?
It was such a huge experiment and we did accept that we could fail. Christina and I went into this knowing that was a possibility and knowing that, had a liberating quality. What I can say is that it was magic. Yes, we were ecstatic that it worked out so well. There were, of course, some serious challenges, I won’t lie. But the way we were able to accept and embrace the challenges, any challenges made the film that much better. We have a beautiful story and we took a unique journey to get there. All I can hope for is that our audience sees the magic that we all felt while making this movie. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a long post-production process to get through before it’s ready for the big screen. By now I know that it will most probably be as unusual as production was. I hope you’ll stay with us for the journey.