Making a movie isn’t easy. Making a movie in 48 hours is about 7000 times more difficult. So you really need to have a LOVE of taking nothing, and making something out of it in a mere two days. You also need to be willing to talk to yourself a lot and have people give you funny looks.
This year’s challenge was the 5th one that I’ve participated in. Having done three back to back in Toronto from 2005, and also taking part last year in Dubai, I knew exactly what to expect. No sleep. Lots of running around. Terrible diet of Red Bull and Doritos. Lots of panicking. Maybe even a few minds lost along the way. It always happens.
But to me, it’s always worth it. Working in film, what better way to flex your film-making muscle then just jumping into the deep end?
Like in previous years, timing isn’t always the best. Last year my writing partner and collaborator Nidal and I both had a shoot lasting till midnight, so our involvement could not be 100%. Even so, we still pulled off a little movie in only 40 hours. This year, I was able to set aside the full 48 hours, but only after coming off a week long project of no more than 3 (maybe 4) hours of sleep a night.
So already mentally and physically exhausted appears to be the only way that I could ever enter this challenge.
My producer, Marianne, had tried to secure a number of crew ahead of time, but this proved to be an issue as expected. A few days leading into the challenge, she had introduced me (via email) to Nyra, whom I would only meet at the actual kick off at AM Studio.
Once we had chosen our random genre of Superhero, we were off and brainstorming ideas while heading to my apartment to write. But first the necessary stop off at a grocery store to load up on the aforementioned Red Bull and Doritos was necessary. By this point, we had a few random ideas and were looking to piece them together.
As we were riding up in the elevator, an idea simply struck me, and most of the concept and plot were formulated inside my mind within seconds. As we were stepping out of the elevator, I proudly proclaimed “Okay, I’ve got it. The Ref is an agent for superheroes and one of his guys is totally pissing him off.”
The character of Red Rockit hadn’t been created yet, so we set about finding a bunch of random clothes and props that my wife has and basically piecing them together. Through this process, we created Louis’ character and then set about discussing who else we had that could act and what they should be. Nyra called up a few friends of hers and we proceeded to brief them over the phone.
It’s ironic really, how much time was spent creating the character of Red Rockit, and he only appears in a single shot in the entire film! Seriously, less than 10 seconds on camera!
From previous experience, one of the most important things aside from securing cast and crew is location. I always say to my team ahead of time how we absolutely need to secure a few locations and how important this is. The way that I often work in script writing is walking through a location and figuring out details on what can happen in the plot. So after our character Red Rockit was created, we took a drive to Arabian Ranches where Marianne’s friend had very generously offered us her villa to film in. Along the way, we also picked up a random friend-of-a-friend, Kinan (whom I had also not met before) who had some interest in film.
Arriving on location, we toured the place and started writing notes and possible scenes. Nidal was able to make it around midnight and join us. At first, the ideas were quite good. But what became an issue quickly was “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Due to our exhaustion, we were having trouble connecting all the dots to form a coherent script. Around 2am, I made the decision that we need to get back to my table and begin writing.
And so, after being awake for over 20 hours, Louis, Nidal and I returned to my place and began writing. Knowing full well that the next 2 days I would have absolutely no sleep, I knew that at least a short nap for me was a necessity.
I took over writing the outline of the film and the scene breakdown. I began writing the script itself, but quickly started to deteriorate, so I left my 3 page outline open on my computer and left Nidal to fill in the dialogue.
2 hours later, we had a first draft. Our set call time was 8am and it was fast approaching. And our script was farrrrr too long. This would worry me the entire shooting day, as we had a 7 minute time limit, but our script was around 12 pages! Luckily, the fact that it was so long and running behind schedule, it forced me to be creative and make a few difficult decisions, which I think worked out much better because of it (more on that later).
Arriving on set, we took a look through Marianne’s giant “Prop and Wig Box” and started figuring out costumes for the rest. We also had an issue of not having a printer work to get copies of the script to everyone, and so the first read through was off of laptops, iPads and Blackberries. Following this, one of our cast was unreachable, and so Nyra stepped in a filled the role of Gossip Girl.
After a few read throughs and changes to the script, we finally got our first shot off at around 2pm, more than 3 hours after I had hoped to be rolling.
Aside from a few sound issues, the shoot itself was going pretty smoothly for a bit. But this didn’t last long. Being 3 hours behind schedule, we began to take notice that the sun would be setting soon. We tried to rush through as much as we could and light best as we can, but once 6pm rolled around and we were out of light, that’s when the big issue came.
We were only about half way through the (already long) script, and had no more light to shoot exteriors. We also didn’t have most of the cast to do pick ups the next day. Luckily, between setups, I grabbed the camera, Brent and Louis and we quickly shot the ending of the film while we still had lots of light before this. Of course, this meant that anything we shoot now, wouldn’t make sense going from day, into night, back into day.
And so, the most harrowing part of this entire experience set in. 5 Pages left to shoot, no sunlight, a cast and crew that were quite worn out, the metaphorical “axe” had to be taken to the script. We lost half an hour if not more first trying to see how we can rework the ending and make it set at night, as if there was a transition into night. We even considered making this a character super power that would change this.
But it just wasn’t working. The pieces weren’t fitting, and I was not happy with some of the (although workable) ideas. I was being pressured into going one of 2 routes, both of which I thought would not work well and would hurt the film. I had to make an executive decision and go into my “I’m going to sit quietly for a while and do my thing in my head” phase, while Nidal took over recording the VOs.
The biggest issue with reworking the remaining 5 pages was that there was plenty of expositional stuff that we had not covered earlier in the film, and so losing it I feared would also lose the audience. During our table reads, there was an idea of staging one of the scenes similar to That 70’s Show Table Shot. The one where they sit and the camera continually pans around during their discussion.
Although I love this idea visually, simply copying it would not have worked for the scenes and my earlier problem of not having enough plot would not be solved. But I did decide to revisit the idea, and after about 30 minutes of having nobody bother me, came the “Dual Ref” idea… in that, the dialog of the other characters remained mostly the same, but after every line, the Ref (working title of the film originally by the way!) would step in and provide just enough information to keep everyone informed.
The title character of Red Rocket was actually the key to all of these scenes originally, and had a lot of screen time. But due to cutting out so much, I was worried that his character would be entirely confusing to the audience. So, reworking the Ref character slightly was necessary and he basically became a number of plot beats in his dialogue.
The first run through was quite messy, as to be expected. We had to slowly stage and write in the additional dialogue. The camera move itself is extremely simple: quick pans to the right and so on for each line. But as the Ref appears after every other pan, we had to choreograph everybody’s movements to be out of the way of not just the frame, but each other!
After quite a while and a few takes, it was time to light the thing! This was the next biggest hurdle. As we were well past 6pm here and it was pitch black outside, there wasn’t much we could do with the lighting we had. Luckily, once again, Marianne stepped in with her awesome resourcefulness and got me a pair of Arri 2Ks. These, along with our LEDs, were integral to lighting this.
But this was a challenge in itself. To get all this light shinning into the room from all 4 corners, and given how bright they were in a small space, shadows were a nightmare. I don’t know how many times we actually moved them around to try and kill shadows. We bounced as much as we could, we tried to shine them across each other, same direction, off the wall, off the ceiling, diffused. You name it. All of them had their own issues with shadows or being too hot.
After probably another 40 minutes of rigging, Nidal and I were able to light it to a place that I was a content enough with. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked, and that’s all that mattered now. I honestly don’t even remember what we did, but it worked.
Then came the next difficulty, my cast was entirely exhausted (as well as the minimal crew) and some people had prior engagements. But I had to keep pushing them. I remember a few annoyed stares here and there… probably a few less than pleasant thoughts, but in the end, it was absolutely worth it.
All in all, for this one scene (which is a single shot), we finally got it about 4 hours later, which over 2 of the hours (if not more) without a single take having been filmed. We filmed plenty of behind the scenes, and Brent said at one point “The real show isn’t up here at the frame, it’s down here on the floor” in regards to the circus going on on the ground (which we actually ended up wining camera “Choreography” for, which as I’m DP and Director, I see it as being the next best thing to a Best Director award!).
So we wrapped around midnight I believe, and then had to tear down, pack up and leave the location the same way we found it. Getting home and beginning editing was the next hassle, as an editor had dropped out and once again I was the only one left to tackle this. Luckily, Marianne had been DIT-ing on set so at least I didn’t need to worry about acquisition.
After a first cut, I needed to shut my eyes for a little bit. I was way past delirious at this point. After my nap, I jumped right back on the editing wagon and with less than 8 hours before deadline, I did the most that I could. Nyra and Marianne came by, and provided me with food (which I had forgotten to eat that entire day) and within an hour of the deadline, we exported and watched our cut. It was good enough, is what I said to myself, though a number of (expected) minor issues. The export itself wasn’t perfect, but we couldn’t afford to be late, so Marianne drove herself and I to AM Studio for the drop off.
At 7:06pm, with 24 minutes left to deadline, we were done!
And the rest, as they say, is history. We had our showing a week later, and found out we were in the OFFICIAL SELECTION in the Top 12 and would get another screening!
The actual best of screening I had a wedding to go to, so was not able to attend, but I did have a live play-by-play and, a little inebriated learned that we won Best Use of Genre. I was quite happy, but honestly, I did not expect that we would go on to win 3 more awards! This was truly a surprise and I know the team deserved it.
Marianne, Nyra and Brent were there to collect the awards.
It was a great experience and I’d love to thank my entire cast and crew, as well as my wife Katrina (who was in Canada at the time but was offering ideas and moral support via text). Team-making is a group effort, and it certainly took all of our ideas and hard work to pull this off. We didn’t win best film, but that’s alright. I quite enjoyed this year’s winning film, Pump-It, and the guys definitely deserved it. Had me laughing a number of times, even if some of it was familiar Family Guy territory in jokes. 🙂
And so, comes the conclusion of this story, with the official online posting of the film.