Below is Part II of Erik's story, which takes us through the 4-day shoot of his short film Turkey. Filming in his own house, he's met with jackhammers, tight spaces and a hungry cat, but makes it to the finish line with brilliant performances from his actors and a completed short film.
You'll laugh, you'll share his nervousness and most of all learn some tips for writing-directing your own projects along the way.
It’s kind of surreal when your doorbell rings at 5am and twenty people enter like it’s just another day at their office. By 7am my house was a working movie set, complete with a green room for talent, hair and makeup station, video village, lit diffusion screens framing the exterior windows, giving it that unmistakable look of a movie shoot. By 8:15 we were behind about an hour due to an issue with my lead’s wardrobe and a difficult lighting set up in the garage. But by 8:30 my talent was camera ready and my DP gave the nod: game on.
And that’s when I heard it. The unmistakable kunk-kunk-kunk-kunk of a jack hammer against concrete. Not in the distance, but like it was inside my head. The ground literally shook. I walked into the back yard, out the back gate, and down the alley toward the sound, my friend and editor Kevin two steps behind me. Three houses down I peered into an open gate and beheld a fork-lift with a giant jack hammer rigged to the forks, laying waste to a swimming pool. The workmen spoke little English, but after getting their attention, I asked simply, “How long?” One man looked at me plainly and said, “All week.”
I’m not going to lie to you. In that moment I felt the hot rush of emotion to my face, some nausea, possibly even the early signs of a lump in my throat. I had, after all, convinced my wife to let me pull thirty thousand dollars from savings and put it all into a a short film. That’s a bad financial investment if everything works out great. But if you don’t wind up with a film at the end? For that I might need a divorce attorney, or at the very least a good therapist.
At that moment, I had six grand in non-refundable equipment for the week and daily payroll of six grand, signed cast deals worth thousands more, and over twenty people who were, at this point, standing quietly in my garage waiting for me to tell them what we were going to do.
It’s worth noting that I had called all of my neighbors to let them know what we were up to, and to request that they suspend gardening services for the week. Everyone had been happy to help. But this house had been for sale, and then empty. I knew there were new owners, and I knew they were remodeling, but for months there hadn’t been a peep. Re-carpeting, I figured. Putting in a new stove. Pondering grout colors. I was wrong.
When I got back to my house, I asked my production manager to see if he could get the number of the contractor and ask what could be done. If nothing could be done, I told him, try to get the number of the new owners, and see what can be done. If nothing can be done, I said, find out their price -- because everyone has a price.
Next, I went to my sound guy, “How bad is it?” He hemmed and hawed. I could tell he didn’t want to give me bad news. “You can definitely hear it,” he said, with a weak smile. The jack-hammer briefly stopped, and then was replaced by a smaller jack hammer, probably a hand held. My sound guy said that this one was audible but we were getting some parts of usable takes. Hey, progress not perfection, right?
After we’d finished our first set up, I went out to find my production manager. He’d spoken to the contractor, but the guy wouldn’t give up the owner’s number. The good news was he was willing to stop for the week. The bad news was, he wanted $2500.
My PM thought I should take it. It would cost at least that much to fix the sound in post, and even then it wouldn’t be perfect, so net-net it was a savings. I wanted to hold off. “Press him for the owners number”, I said, “and let’s just see how it shakes out”. All in all we lost about 2/3rds of our first day due to the noise and the challenges of shooting in my garage.
By day two, we got out of the garage, and though the noise in the neighborhood continued to be a challenge, the bigger challenge at that point became figuring out how to make up time without compromising the story. Fortunately, this is where having an experienced first AD, and a capable script supervisor came in very handy. My first kept us on pace, and my scriptie made sure we didn’t move on before we had gotten everything we needed.
But by the end of day two, the performances had rounded into shape, the crew was clicking, and I was able to exhale for maybe the first time in 48 hours. I looked around and noticed something: I was making a movie.
Day three was the big day. We were shooting the second act climax. For my lead actress, I knew it would be taxing. As written it was a six minute scene in which she slowly melts down. In rehearsals she’d played it funny and real, but she didn’t come unglued, which is exactly how I’d pictured it when I was writing it. But by take three of the first set up, she was going for it. Coming apart. It was amazing: hilarious and dramatic at the same time.
The only problem was, I needed her to do it from six eye-lines! At even three takes per set-up that was going to be eighteen takes. Eighteen times coming unglued, and then getting Humpty Dumpty back on the wall. Eighteen times clearing the snot and the tears, resetting the makeup. I don’t know what she did inside to unwind and re-spool that thread so many times, but like a true professional, she did it. My job between takes became increasingly to try to manage her battery life.
Hours later, we were down to our last set-up, but we were losing her. We needed the shot. Couldn’t not have it. We spoke, and I could tell she was empty. But we had to have it. She agreed to reset and go again. We did a take but it was wobbly. It was loose and a overwrought; there was a plane; I needed one more. One clean take. She agreed. We rolled again, and right as we were getting to the emotional spinout...meow. I traded looks with my sound guy and my scriptie. Meow. Priscilla stopped. “There’s a cat.” She said.
“I know,” I said, and we cut and I raced upstairs. Remember, this was my house. And my cat – poor thing – was hungry. I ripped open a can of food and scooped a wad of goopy cat food with my bare hand and slapped it into his bowl and raced back downstairs wiping my hand on my jeans. Ah, the life of a film director.
I’d only been gone a minute, but by the time I got back I knew: she was done. I conferred with my script supervisor and she convinced me we had what we needed in the first take. I ran through my mental check list and was 96% sure she was right. Sigh. Moving on...
Our final day was all fun. I had found my sea legs as a director. The cast and crew were all chummy. The neighborhood was quiet. And I was able to actually be present to the experience. Okay, that’s a little bit of revisionist history. We were shooting without a permit in the street in front of my house, and fifty little things went wrong and we ran out of light before we were done. But by then I’d come to realize that’s just how movie shoots go. And rather than get knocked around by the problems, I’d learned to kind of surf above the choppy water, letting the crazy momentum of it all carry me.
I discovered that the biggest difference between writing and directing is that writing is invention, while directing is choices. Writing is a collision between a brain and a blank page. Directing is a collision between a brain and a meteor shower of options and issues, other people and limitations. Choosing between two things you can afford alone but not together. Creative choices like, Do you want this actor or that actor? Do you want the performance like this or like that? Do you like this outfit for your lead, or that one? Do you want to shoot on the Alexa or the Red Epic? Are you thinking of a slider for that shot, or a jib? Do you want to live in your master or in your coverage? Do you want to shoot 2:35? Or 1:85? The choices are endless. Endless. And they all matter.
But perhaps the hardest part of directing was just the stamina it took. Up at 4am, and go go go. To bed at midnight, and then get up and do it all over again. And that was for a short film! I can’t imagine doing that for 26 days.
At any rate, despite the challenges and the exhaustion and the risks, I can say this for sure: I know what I want to be when I grow up. The film business treats writers poorly for no good reason, expecting us to work for free and then lamenting the lack of good material out there. Wonder why cable is thriving? Writers are the bosses. So a lot of the good feature talent is moving that way. But in film, directors are king, so hopefully this short is at least a half-step in the direction of re-branding myself as a writer- director. Only time will tell.
It’s been just over a year since I shot the film. And my experiences in post production only reinforced my love of the whole process. The festival circuit, on the other hand, has been sobering. We’re still waiting to land in one of the top tier fests. But in the mean time, we’re in a slew of solid smaller regional festivals, and we’ve been winning awards. As for the “re-branding” effort, let’s just say when I shared the film with my manager, he shrugged and said he thought this short film wouldn’t do much to move the needle for me as a director. So there you go.
To me the important thing is I made the film I wanted to make, and I’m proud of it. I'm proud because it’s full of creative self-permission. And it’s full of real, funny, human performances. And most importantly, it’s a thing. Unlike a script — which is a thing that’s part of another thing, like a prop from a film that never got made — this is a whole. And it exists in the world. And that makes me smile.
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