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Filmmaking / Directing : How I Made a Feature Length Film in One Weekend by Nathan Suher

Nathan Suher

How I Made a Feature Length Film in One Weekend

Monday, August 20th, 2018 - I got home at 10pm last night. I had woken 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. Inside an air-conditioned vacant office in Plainville, MA we were attempting an impossible feat.

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'd think that after such an exhausting experience I would be desiring a reprieve from the stresses of directing a feature film. Within a few weeks I'm sitting with the writer of that movie, Lenny Schwartz, looking a dailies and suddenly we find ourselves talking about the next project. Immediately I bring up a play he wrote several years earlier, Newcastle, that I told him was one of my favorite of his. 'Newcastle' is about a tabloid magazine writer who just witnessed the assassination of a US Senator and the FBI comes to interrogate him. It is a dizzying claustrophobic story that I felt had a strong cinematic quality. It reminded me of many 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 already set in motion to to adapt his play to a feature film. 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 film the play and we would film it. We believed that if we could find a cast that could commit to two weeks of evening rehearsals that we could have them ready for a weekend of filming to attempt to film the entire 100 page script in a single take. This immediately solved one of our biggest challenges which was to avoid a long film shoot. Now that we knew the concept of how we were going to film it 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 Brad Kirton gave the standout performance. His portrayal of Maccabees, the villain embodied an extraordinary amount of charisma and maniacal playfullness that I couldn't picture anyone other then Brad in this lead role. I can almost compare his performance as Maccabees on the level of Heath Ledgers' Joker in 'The Dark Knight'. Throughout that fall and leading into the winter Lenny and I casually auditioned possible cast with a mixed bag or 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 had both worked with on 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.

So I'm looking at 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 he isn't precious about things like this. 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.

April, 2018 - At this point we had assembled the major pieces of our crew and 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 and 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 into fruition with both Lenny and my schedule being so full. We both reached out to local actors to ask if they'd be interested in this film and over the next 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 somehow does.

June 30th, 2018 (40 days until our first rehearsal) - This was a the day of our only table read. That morning I was contacted that two of our actors would have to withdraw from the production due to scheduling conflicts. Stressed, yes. Panicking, no. We knew of other talented actors who would fill these roles. Still no location has been secured.

July 2nd, 2018 - Something isn't sitting with me right. I'm watching a video of the table read I filmed a few days before. I'm watching the chemistry of the actors and it's occurring to me that our lead actor who portrays the hero of the film (Mark Wallace), as great and talented as he is, just isn't embodying the role as I had hoped he would. A difficult phone call followed and we both were in agreement that unfortunately this project wasn't a good fit for him. Stressed, yes. Panicking, yeah....kinda.

By mid July our casting concerns we suppressed. We were able to replace all three roles with some wonderfully talented people. I full cast now included our leads, Brad Kirton and Phoenyx Williams. Plus a supporting cast consisting of Wendy Hartman, Sarah Reed, Josh Fontaine, John Samela, Jocelyn Padilla, Sheri Lee and Christie Devine. Still no location secured. Stressed, yes. Panicking, hell yeah.

Now in order to give context to the following decision I need to explain a little bit about my family and my wife's career. Lori is a middle school guidance counselor, and we have two daughters, one of which is 7 years old and heading into the 2nd grade. When you have kids that our school age or work in the education field you are pretty much limited to taking full week vacations either on school breaks or during the summer. Originally our family was planning on taking a week off to travel to Pennsylvania for some good family time in the middle of July. Unforeseen circumstances derailed our intentions to leave then. With rehearsals quickly approaching, followed by a weekend of filming it was getting very dicy if we'd have a vacation at all. Especially considering that after filming commenced, Lori would soon have to return to school. The only possible week that my family could get away was the week of August 6th-12th, smack dab in the middle of our first week of rehearsal. Thankfully Lenny came running to the rescue offering to direct the first week of rehearsals. Wheww. Still no location secured. Stressed, like an accountant on April 15th. Panicking, @#$%@#$%%$@

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 some of them were even on board for our production, but either the space wasn't good, or it was too far away, or they were going to charge us an arm and kidney for its use. The solution to this problem inevitable was solved 9 years ago when I joined the United Regional Chamber of Commerce. Back then I was just starting out as freelance videographer with my company Wedding Reels Video. I was shooting mostly weddings but occasionally videos for small businesses. When I joined I began rubbing shoulders with some wonderful owners of local businesses. The president of the Chamber was Jack Lank. Even though I am no longer a chamber member, Jack has always been an advisor, a supporter of local businesses, a resource, and a down to earth guy. In 2011 I produced a PSA for the Education Exchange and Jack lent his vocal talents as the narrator for it. 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 up during this morning commute asking if he has any thoughts on an available location for our film. "How about the vacant office next to the Chamber?", he said. Within two days we had our location secured at a cost that I could digest (free). Stressed or panicked, no mas!

Family vacation comes and goes. We had a wonderful time. No stress. At which time during our vacation Lenny is directing rehearsals back home. I did the best I could to not constantly be checking my email and facebook. My grade, B+

August 13th, 2018 - I'm back from vacation and I'm ready to take over the reigns of directing the 2nd week of rehearsals. Rehearsals go very well. However, our two lead actors don't have the 3rd actor fully memorized yet. Stressed, no. Panicking, no.

August 14th, 2018 - We invite Nat Sylva, an accomplished actor and fight choreographer to the set to work with the actors on some of the stunts in the film. 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 and record sound. The final act of the movie still isn't completely solid yet. Lines are getting dropped, mistakes are made. Stressed, yup. Panicking, 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 3rd 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 cannot film the entire script all in one take we need to have a backup plan. We decide to break the script up into 9 parts and film those in chronological order. And after we comfortably got those takes we will film the version with the single take.

Worst case scenario we have a feature length film broken up into 9 long takes. That's pretty cool too. Stressed, uh-huh. Panicking, not so much anymore.

August 17th, 2018 - So we have this huge office with nothing it it to sell it as a tabloid magazine office. It's white and pristine. Michelle Parenteau (our Production Designer), 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'. An entire day was spent back then moving stacks and stacks of magazine from their large office into a smaller attached office. I'm talking thousands and thousands of magazines. Everywhere. For this new film Mike was gracious enough to donate an entire carload of old magazines that we could stack all over the set of our film to give it the look we were going for. A few more stops that day at Target and Walmart and we had all the props and materials for set design we needed. By the end of the afternoon we turned the empty office into the tabloid magazine writer's office for our film. Stressed, less. Panicking, nope. Exhausted, Hell yeah.

August 18th, 2018 (Day 1 of 2 of shoot) - In order to film a 100 page script all in a single take everything has to go right. The actors need to know all their lines and 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 broken up 10 minute takes that we broke the script into to. It's 10:45am 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 at all that we will finish the entire thing before we end on Sunday, but I concerned that we will run out of time to attempt the full 100 page 1 take shot that was the original plan.

August 19th, 2018 6:30am (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 are 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 10 parts of the script. The time is 4:05pm. Doing the math it occurs to me that we only have 1 or maybe 2 legit shots at the full 1 take version of the script before we lose the sunlight. Even though we are in an office, the movie takes place during the daytime and we need to finish up 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 we call a crew meeting to discuss what everyone needs in order to tackle the 1 take version of our film. Throughout the weekend takes failed for a variety of reason, boom in shot, camera missed an action or saw something it wasn't supposed to, or there was an 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 5:15pm. The biggest discussion is to figure out what constitutes a bad take. And at what point in the script is the point of no return. Just as we're about to begin I put on my headphones, no sound. This constituted a huge problem because now I can't hear anything happening on set. You need to understand that with the nature of this film there is action happening all over the room, the camera is looking 360 degrees around the space. Myself, our AC on a remote follow focus, and my AD our huddled in an adjacent hallway watching on a monitor. There is no time to troubleshoot the issue. I'm only able to watch, but I can't hear. This is especially troubling because so much of our film involves actors being cued from the hallway to enter the set. Essentially this just added an extra layer to my stress level. Stressed, HA! Panicking, what do you think?

I call ACTION! 40 seconds in the boom is in the middle of the shot. CUT! Ok...there's plenty of time. Let's go again. 5:20pm. ACTION! This time we're cruising along but suddenly 10 minutes into the scene a key moment gets flubbed. It's 5:45pm. My sound guy tells me that no matter what happens we need to wrap by 7:30 so he can be on the road to prep for another shoot the next day. Doing the math again in my head I realize that we only have 1 more shot at this or it's not going to happen. ACTION! We get past the prior part where there was a flub. 10 pages in, no sweat. 19 pages in, we have now begun combining our first two scenes into a single continuous take. 35 or so pages in everyone is hitting their marks and delivering their best performances of the weekend. Maybe just maybe we'll do this. We hit the 50 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. Page 88! So from page 88 through 100 is where our lead actor was having the hardest time. Lines were getting dropped, and there is also a choreographed fight between the hero and the villain that was proving problematic to film properly. A decision was made shortly before we filmed that individual scene earlier that day that the fight was just going to be cut out and it was going to be turned into an intense conversation. We cross the threshold into the 3rd act. 12 pages of huge monologues and rapid back and fourth dialogue that puts 'His Girl Friday' in its corner. All the crew and actors in the adjacent hallway are collectively holding their breaths knowing that the entire film hangs in the balance if these two actors an bring it home without any mistakes. 10 pages left, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5....at this point my heart is about to explode. My head is pounding....somewhere in the past 30 minutes I developed a migraine....I wonder why? Fortunately 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 were going to pull it off. The two leads were so focused, so in the moment, fully committed to the scene that I had no doubt that even if their was a flub that they would be able to recover. 4 pages left, 3 pages left, 2 pages left, then the final page. The final camera move rests on an actors face for what I'm sure he felt was an eternity. I wait probably 20 seconds letting him sweat as he waits for me to end the movie. "CUT".

And just like that it ended. It was over. Cast and crew rushed into the room congratulating the actors and of course of camera operator (Ben Heald) and sound people (Evan Schneider, Ben Rooker, and Chris Vance), as well as Phil Skippy Adams helping with SFX makeup and stunts) who had spent 100 pages dancing behind the camera.

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 of this that brought be to this point. This story of making this film is so layered and rich with nuance I could probably write for another two hours and just scratch the surface. It 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 which 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 that I direct have and probably will have varying degrees of success, the one constant in all of this is that I have had the time of my life working with all of the cast and crew from every production I've 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

Pamela Bolinder

You are super organized! The cast and crew are super focused and on task! WOW

David Trotti

That's a great story Nathan and an amazing feat. Kudos to you and your whole team. You reminded me of a film I saw a few years back, Russian Ark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZV1kphEEXn8

Keep us all updated on your post process. I feel for your Digital Imaging Technician. That's a big set of files to transfer.

Gloria Hass


James Drago

This was a cool read.

Joleene Moody

Nathan Suher ​ - Joleene from the Stage32 offices. I'm the blog content curator and this post is amazing. Would you be open to us using that post as a blog post? I think it would benefit a lot of our members.

Let me know. You can email me directly at joleene@stage32.com and we'll go from there.



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