Monday, August 20th, 2018 - I got home at 10pm last night. I woke up at 5am that morning not knowing how my day would turn out. It was a beautiful mid-August morning with the hot sweltering heat and humidity of the past couple months finally breaking with a perfect weather day. However, myself and 18 other actors and crew members wouldn't be outside to enjoy the gorgeous weather. We were inside an air-conditioned vacant office in Plainville, MA instead, attempting an impossible feat.
From left to right: Brad Kirton (Maccabees), Sherri Lee (Gwen), Sarah Reed (Kate), and Phoenyx Williams (Mark Wallace)
August 2017 - Rewind to one year ago. I had just wrapped principle photography on my first feature film, Higher Methods. It was an exhausting 19 days of production that culminated that July in Rehoboth, MA.
You would think that after such an exhausting experience, I would desire reprieve from the stresses of directing a feature film. But no. A few weeks later I found myself sitting with the writer of the movie, Lenny Schwartz, looking at dailies and talking about the next project. Immediately, I bring up a play he wrote several years earlier called Newcastle. I told him it was one of my favorites of his. Newcastle is about a tabloid magazine writer who witnessed the assassination of a U.S. Senator. The FBI comes to interrogate him.
It is a dizzying claustrophobic story that I felt had a strong, cinematic quality. It reminded me of the 1970's political paranoia films like: Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, and The Manchurian Candidate. Without even realizing it, the wheels were set in motion to adapt his play to a feature film.
Brad Kirton (Maccabees) and Phoenyx Williams (Mark Wallace)
Knowing the years of preparation that went into my first feature, I was timid about jumping into another huge endeavor. And I certainly wasn't in a position to tackle the fundraising needed to produce another feature film.
The solution came about quite easily. Newcastle, in comparison to Higher Methods (also originally a play written by Lenny Schwartz), lent itself to a much leaner scaled production. The story took place in one single location. It also took place in real time. The idea quickly revealed itself that we could approach this production as if we were preparing for a live stage play. But instead of performing it in front of a live audience, we could just film it. We believed that if we could find the right actors willing to commit two weeks of evening rehearsals, that we could have them ready for a weekend of filming the entire 100-page script in a single take.
This technique would immediately solve one of our biggest challenges: Avoiding a long film shoot. Now that we knew how we were going to film, next came the task of finding a quality cast that could commit to our production.
As early as September 2017, I began considering who would be interested in this style of production. When I thought back to the original stage version of this script, I remembered how I felt about Brad Kirton, the actor who gave a standout performance. His on stage portrayal of Maccabees, a villain who embodied an extraordinary amount of charisma and maniacal playfulness, made me realize that I couldn't picture anyone other then Brad in this lead role.
Crew Photo Standing - From left to right: Skippy Adams, Ben Heald, Josh Fontaine, Sherri Lee, Brad Kirton, Phoenyx Williams, Talia Cataldo,
Jocelyn Padilla, Sarah Reed, Chris Vance, Wendy Hartman, John Samela. Kneeling - From left to right: Ben Rooker, Evan Schneider, Nathan Suher, Anthony Ambrosino
I compare his performance as Maccabees on the level of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Throughout that fall and leading into winter, Lenny and I casually auditioned other possible cast with mixed results.
I began to focus my attention on hiring a crew. Unlike Higher Methods, which on any given day encompassed a crew the size of baseball team, Newcastle would have to be scaled down to a skeleton sized team of professionals. I secured a fantastic team on both the camera side and audio side that I worked with on a prior production. One thing I've learned over the years; when you find highly skilled people you love working with, keep on going with them. Having strong chemistry and a great rapport with your crew is essential to a smooth production.
With a crew in place, I began to consider the title of the screenplay. Newcastle. Hmmm. During a meeting with Lenny, I asked him if he minded if we entertain the idea of changing the title to something a bit more cinematic. What's great about Lenny is that he isn't precious about things like that. He was completely cool with the idea. He returned with name, True American. I thought about it for a week or so until the name of the movie that would eventually be the final title popped into my head, The Assassination of Western Civilization. I felt the new title evoked a sentiment that many Americans feel about our democracy and current administration.
Director, Nathan Suher
April, 2018 - At this point we had assembled the major pieces of our crew. But we still had a ton of work to do finding a cast. At this point, only Brad Kirton was signed on to reprise his role of Maccabees, We still had 8 more roles to fill. Another huge thing that needed to be addressed was securing a location to film in. Finding time to hold open calls never came to fruition because Lenny and I had such a full schedule. So we reached out to local actors instead and asked if they'd be interested in the film. After a few months, we had a full cast. Still no location, though. I figured we still had time to solve this and the solution will eventually present itself, as it often does.
June 30th, 2018 (40 days until our first rehearsal.) This was a the day of our only table read. That morning I was told that two of our actors would have to withdraw from the production due to scheduling conflicts. Stressed? Yes. Panicked? No. We knew other talented actors who could fill these roles.
Still no location secured.
From left to right: Phoenyx Williams, Brad Kirton, Sherri Lee
July 2nd, 2018 - Something isn't sitting right with me. I'm watching a video of the table read from a few days before and really looking at the chemistry of the actors. It occurs to me that our lead (Mark Wallace) just isn't embodying the role as I had hoped he would.
A difficult phone call with him followed. As amazing as he is, we were both in agreement that the project wasn't a good fit for him.
Stressed? Yes. Panicked? Yeah. Kinda. By mid-July, our casting concerns were suppressed. We were able to replace the empty roles with some wonderfully talented people. The full cast now included leads Brad Kirton and Phoenyx Williams. The supporting cast consisted of Wendy Hartman, Sarah Reed, Josh Fontaine, John Samela, Jocelyn Padilla, Sheri Lee, and Christie Devine.
Still no location secured.
Stressed? Yes. Panicked? Hell, yeah.
Now, in order to give context to the next dilemma, allow me to explain a little bit about my family and my wife's career first. Lori is a middle school guidance counselor. We have two daughters, one whom is 7-years-old and heading into 2nd grade. When you have young kids or work in the education field, you’re pretty much limited to taking week vacations on school breaks or during the summer.
Originally, our family planned on taking a week off to travel to Pennsylvania in the middle of July. Unforeseen circumstances derailed our intentions. With rehearsals quickly approaching, followed by a weekend of filming, we were unsure that we were going to have a vacation at all. Especially considering that after filming, Lori would have to return to school. The only possible week my family could get away was August 6th-12th, smack dab in the middle of our first week of rehearsal. Thankfully, Lenny came to the rescue, offering to direct that entire week on his own. Whew. Still no location secured.
Stressed? Yes. Like an accountant on April 15th. Panicked? @#$%@#$%%$@.
July 29th, 2018 - I'm driving to work that morning and all I can do is think about how I'm going to find a location. Over the past week, I had scouted a few places. And while they were on board, either the space wasn't good, it was too far away, or they were going to charge us an arm and kidney for its use.
The solution to this problem was actually solved nine years prior when I joined the United Regional Chamber of Commerce. Back then, I was just starting out as freelance videographer. I shot mostly weddings, but occasionally shot videos for small businesses, too. When I joined, I rubbed shoulders with some wonderful local business owners. The president of the Chamber was Jack Lank. Jack has always been an advisor, a resource, and just a great, down to earth guy.
In 2011, I produced a PSA for the Education Exchange and Jack lent his vocal talents as the narrator. Our PSA received an award for best voice over that year. Oh, and best cinematography, best music, best screenplay, and overall best PSA! I called Jack during my morning commute to ask if he had any suggestions on a location.
"How about the vacant office next to the Chamber?" he suggested. Within two days, we had our location secured at a cost that I could digest. FREE.
Stressed or panicked? No mas!
The family vacation comes and goes. We had a wonderful time. No stress. Lenny is directing rehearsals back home. I did the best I could to not constantly check my email and Facebook. My grade? B+.
August 13th, 2018 - I'm back from vacation and ready to take the directing reigns for the second week of rehearsals. Things go very well. However, our two lead actors don't have the third act fully memorized yet.
Stressed? No. Panicked? No.
From left to right: Jocelyn Padilla (Susan), and Christie Devine (Mia), and way in the background there is Anthony Ambrosino (Assistant Director)
August 14th, 2018 - We invite to set Nat Sylva, an accomplished actor and fight choreographer, to work with the actors on some stunts.
Oh yeah, there is a lot of fighting, grappling, and rolling around in the film.
August 15th, 2018 - The person who was supposed to be my 2nd AD informs me that he has to work this weekend. Down to one AD, no problem, we got this still. At rehearsals that night we bring our full camera and sound crew to the set to witness the entire production performed so they can devise a plan for how to film and record sound. The final act of the movie still isn't completely solid. Lines are dropped, mistakes are made.
Stressed? Yep. Panicked? Some.
August 16th, 2018 - Our final night of rehearsals. The supporting cast has their lines down. They are killing it!
Our lead still doesn't have the third act down yet. Lenny and I are doing everything we can to relax him and coach him on his performance. Concerns bubble up that if we can’t film the entire script in one take, that we need to have a backup plan.
We decide to break the script up into nine parts and film them in chronological order. And, after we comfortably get those takes, we film the version with a single take. Worst-case scenario? We have a feature length film broken up into none long takes. That's pretty cool too.
Stressed? Uh-huh. Panicked? Not so much anymore.
August 17th, 2018 - So we have this huge office with nothing in it to sell it as a tabloid magazine office. It's white and pristine.
Our Production Designer, Michelle Parenteau, and myself take a trip to the Motif Magazine office in Pawtucket, RI.
Motif is run by my friend and colleague, Mike Ryan. About 18 months earlier we used their office space for a scene in Higher Methods. We spent an entire day moving stacks of magazine from their large office into a smaller attached office.
I'm talking thousands and thousands of magazines. Everywhere.
For The Assassination of Western Civilization, Mike was gracious enough to donate an entire carload of magazines that we could stack all over the set to give it the look we were going for.
A few more stops at Target and Walmart, and we had all the props and materials we needed. By the end of the afternoon, we turned the empty office into a tabloid magazine writer's office for our film.
Stressed? Less. Panicked? Nope. Exhausted, Hell yeah.
August 18th, 2018 (Day 1 of 2 of shoot) - In order to film a 100-page script in a single take, everything has to go right. The actors need to know all of their lines. If they make a mistake, they have to be on their toes to recover. Just as important, the crew has to be laser focused on all the action happening in the room so as not to miss something that could ruin the take. An incredible amount of preparation had to take place just to properly film the 10-minute takes that we broke the script into. It's 10:45 am and the first shot is up. Within 20 seconds, the boom pole flies into the middle of the shot. Cut!
Ok. This is not going to be easy.
After a 10-hour day we managed to get through 60 pages (5 scenes) of our 100-page script. At this point I'm not worried that won’t finish the entire thing before we end on Sunday, but I am concerned that we will run out of time to attempt the one-take shot that was the original plan.
August 19th, 2018 6:30 a.m. (Day 2 of 2 of shoot.) I arrive on set early to think the day through. I get the coffee started and lay out breakfast for everyone.
Dammit, we're out of half & half and cream cheese for the bagels. I'm thinking there is going to be mutiny.
Having left most of our equipment there from the day before, we’re able to get our first shot up much quicker this morning. We pick up where we left off and push through until we have solid takes of all ten parts of the script.
It’s now 4:05 p.m. Doing the math, it occurs to me that we only have one, maybe two legit shots at shooting the full, continuous take version before we lose sunlight.
Even though we’re in an office, the movie takes place during the day. So we need to finish before the sun sets. It's not like we brought the proper lights to shine through the windows to recreate daylight. My 1st AD (Anthony Ambrosino) and I call a crew meeting to discuss what everyone needs to do in order to tackle the continuous take version. Throughout the weekend, takes failed for a variety of reasons: - Boom in shot. - Camera missed an action. - Camera saw something it wasn't supposed to. - Acting flub. I'm thinking that the odds that we can accomplish this in a single take are about as good as the Cavs winning the championship this season. It's 5:15 p.m. The biggest discussions now are: 1) What constitutes a bad take? 2) At what point in the script is the point of no return? Just before we begin, I put my headphones and - no sound. I can't hear anything on set. You need to understand that with the nature of this film, there is action happening all over the room and the camera is looking 360 degrees around the space. Myself, our AC on a remote follow focus, and my AD are huddled in an adjacent hallway watching on a monitor. There’s literally no time to troubleshoot. We have to move forward. So without sound, I'm only able to watch. This is especially troubling because so much of our film involves actors being cued from the hallway to enter the set. This issue just added an extra layer to my stress level.
Stressed? HA! Panicked? What do you think?
The infamous hallway.
I call ACTION! 40 seconds in, the boom is in the middle of the shot. CUT! Okay, it’s fine. There's still plenty time. Let's go again. ACTION! We’re cruising along just fine until suddenly, 10 minutes into the scene, a key moment gets flubbed. It's 5:45 p.m. My sound guy tells me that no matter what happens, we need to wrap by 7:30 p.m. so he can be on the road to prep for another shoot the next day.
Doing the math again, I realize that we only have one last shot at this or it's not going to happen. ACTION! We get past the prior part where there was a flub. Ten pages in, no sweat. Nineteen pages in, we now begin combining the first two scenes into a single continuous take. Thirty-five pages in, everyone is hitting their marks and delivering their best performances of the weekend.
Maybe, just maybe we'll do this.
With ease, we hit the fifty-page mark. Wow! I'm thinking this is great. Page 68 is where things got scary. One of our actors flubs a line. He says the wrong characters name. My heart drops. We've come so far, only to blow it on a line that was never an issue before. But, like any good stage actor does, he realized his flub and stayed in character and recovered. We make it to page 88. From page 88 through 100 is where our lead actor had the hardest time. Lines were dropped. A choreographed fight between the hero and villain was proving problematic to film. No worries. Earlier that day, a decision was made to cut the fight scene and turn it into an intense conversation instead.
We overcome and cross the threshold into the third act. Twelve pages of huge monologues and rapid back-and-fourth dialogue unfold that puts His Girl Friday in its corner. The crew and actors in the adjacent hallway collectively hold their breaths knowing that the entire film hangs in the balance if these two actors can bring it home without any mistakes.
Ten pages left. 9, 8, 7, 6, 5... At this point my heart is about to explode. My head is pounding. Somewhere in the last 30 minutes, I develop a migraine. I wonder why? Fortunately, for the last part of the script, the office door is allowed to stay open so I can hear the actors from the hallway. As stressed as I am, I started to feel more and more confident that they’re going to pull it off. The two leads were so focused, so in the moment, so fully committed to the scene, that I had no doubt that even if their was a flub, they would recover.
Four pages left, 3 pages left, 2 pages left, then - the final page.
For the last shot, the camera rests on an actors face for what I'm sure he felt was an eternity. I wait probably 20 more seconds, letting him sweat as he waits for me to end the movie. "CUT!" And just like that, it ended. It was over.
The cast and crew rushed into the room, congratulating the actors, the camera operator (Ben Heald), the sound people (Evan Schneider, Ben Rooker, and Chris Vance), and Phil Skippy Adams, who helped with SFX makeup and stunts. He also spent 100-pages dancing behind the camera.
My well-worn shooting script.
Monday, August 20th, 2018 - It still hasn't sunk in fully, the scope of this. It was such a long journey to get to this point and it happened so quickly. I'm dizzy just thinking about all the moments from the planning up until this point.
The story of making this film is so layered and rich with nuance, I could probably write for another two hours and still just scratch the surface. Working on The Assassination of Western Civilization will be an experience that I know I will never forget. I got to work with many wonderful people that I didn't really know before. People like Skippy Adams, Sarah Reed, Chris Vance, Sheri Lee, Ben Rooker, Wendy Hartman, Talia Cataldo, Phoenyx Williams and John Samela.
It also fortified the relationships I already had with other crew members, some of whom I've been friends with for many years. People like Jocelyn Padilla, Chris Boylston, Lenny Schwartz, Evan Schneider, Josh Fontaine, Anthony Ambrosino, Stacey Johnson, Kim Kayling, Christie Devine, Michelle Parenteau and Ben Heald.
I feel extremely lucky that even though films I direct will have varying degrees of success, the one constant is that I had the time of my life working with the cast and crew from every production I've ever been a part of.
Thank you to everyone who I have had the pleasure to work with on this film. I am one lucky guy.
Nathan Suher is a producer and director based in Southeastern, MA.
He's been producing and directing films for 20 years, and has 12 short
films under his belt. Major influences are the films of Woody Allen,
Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Steven
Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch, and Danny Boyle.
His most recent productions include 'Scary Little Fuckers (A Christmas Movie),'
a holiday horror/comedy similar to the 80's creature/critter movies like Gremlins
and Critters. This film recently made is festival premiere at the Rock and Shock
Film Festival in October 2015.
Like this blog post? Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email etc) by using social media buttons at the top of the blog. Or post to your personal blog and anywhere else you feel appropriate. Thank you.
As always, we welcome thoughts and remarks on ANY of the content above in the Comments section below...
|Really Look at Your Locations: with David Rountree|
|Is Guerilla Shooting Reckless Shooting? (Stage 32 Weighs In)|