Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Making of "The Wheels"

Writing, directing and producing my Intermediate Narrative film The Wheels was a long and fascinating process that began well over a year ago, in Professor Selma Thompson’s Fundamentals of Visual and Dramatic Writing class, where I first wrote the screenplay for The Wheels as a class assignment in the fall of 2010. Originally, the film took place almost entirely in a Ferris Wheel cage, but Professor Thompson and the class assisted me with creative changes that ultimately resulted in a final script with which I was very happy. Professor Thompson, knowing that this was a particularly personal piece and something that I hoped to shoot at New York University, specifically helped me refine the screenplay so that it could potentially get approval from the NYU insurance office. This meant rewriting the Ferris Wheel scene such that the Ferris Wheel never actually moves or operates in the film – for if we needed to shoot the movie in a moving Ferris Wheel, we would have a far more difficult time finding a location and receiving insurance certification from the university.

During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I wrote and directed a short film outside of class titled With Love, Marty. I asked most of my friends who had crewed on that picture to return to work on The Wheels the following semester – including my producer, Erica Rose; director of photography, Benjamin Dewey; and sound mixer and sound editor, Bobb Barito. Having assembled a large part of my crew over the summer, I spent time during July and August writing letters, making phone calls and contacting amusement parks in the Tri-State area – mostly in New Jersey, Brooklyn and upstate New York. On my birthday, I heard back from Dennis Vourderis, the owner and proprietor of Deno’s Wonder Wheel in Coney Island, offering me the opportunity to shoot at his location. This was perfect - Deno’s Wonder Wheel was my first choice as a location (as their Ferris Wheel cars are exactly what I had in mind).

The immediate difficulties were obvious – we needed to shoot at Deno’s Wonder Wheel before Columbus Day Weekend, the expected closing date of the Wonder Wheel for the fall. Mr. Vourderis and I settled on a shooting day of Monday, October 3rd – for a six-hour shoot. This meant shooting nearly six pages of material in six hours – which, at first, seemed nearly impossible. In addition, the shoot was scheduled so early in the semester that I quickly realized that I must have everything prepared long in advance during the month of September.

Still, even though I arrived to New York City in late August and hit the ground running with the pre-production process, I did not expect some of the many challenges that came immediately. After visiting Deno’s Wonder Wheel and taking extensive set photographs on Labor Day weekend, I attended the first day of my Intermediate Narrative production class to learn that students were not allowed to shoot their films until the weekend of Friday, October 21st per Tisch School of the Arts guidelines. Fortunately, having emailed the Executive Director of Production Studies, Gay Abel-Bey, over the summer and pre-approving my October 3rd shooting date, I was technically in the clear to move forward and shoot on that date. Thanks to the incredible generosity of Ms. Abel-Bey, my professor Josh Sternfeld, Production Supervisors Jeff Stolow and Ted Wachs, an arrangement was made so that I could have an early Safety Tech from Mr. Wachs before my first day of shooting. However, Professor Sternfeld warned me that if I was going to go ahead with my plan to shoot on October 3rd, I would have to move fast and furiously to ensure proper insurance approval, transportation, fundraising, casting, rehearsals and finding a way to shoot a large part of the film efficiently and quickly. Because the alternative meant finding another location (something that I didn’t particularly want to do), I decided to plow ahead. Benjamin Dewey and I met, and we prepared a shot list and style of shooting that would make it possible to shoot six pages in six hours. I created an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for The Wheels, shooting a Promo Video over the weekend and beginning the fundraising campaign twenty-six days before our first day of shooting. In those twenty-six days, I raised $1331.00 – almost double the amount of my $750.00 goal. Because I was shooting my film long before anyone else, not as many people were flooded with Kickstarter and IndieGoGo campaign contribution requests for other films, which was a blessing.

I started working on the lengthy production insurance approval process, which meant creating a cast and crew contact sheet; drawing floor plans and finding maps of the location; visiting Deno’s Wonder Wheel again, taking more location photos and labeling them accordingly; finding maps to the hospital, police station and firehouse nearest to the location; creating a specific, shot-by-shot shooting schedule with my Assistant Director, the great Matt O’Brien; working out a specific, item-by-item budget with my producer; describing in detail what equipment I would use from the Intermediate Narrative allotment and where that equipment would be staged during the shoot; turning in an equipment Pick Sheet to the NYU Production Center; creating a Call Sheet for the first day of shooting; making a rental reservation for a moving truck from Budget Van Manhattan, with my driver and second Assistant Director Mike Cheslik; providing proof of one million dollars worth of liability insurance from Budget Van Manhattan; making a detailed pick-up and drop-off schedule for October 3rd; and detailing any red flags or potential production dangers in the script. All of this information needed to be documented and completed in about a two-week period, so that I could turn in the information to Professor Sternfeld, who in turn gave it to Mr. Stolow, who then officially cleared my production for approval a few days later. Only after Mr. Stolow approved the production could I file for insurance and send all of this information over to the NYU insurance office. Students are not allowed to shoot until they have received insurance certification from NYU – and, in my case, the insurance office emailed me questions about potential red flags before giving me approval. Generally, you should have your production checklist ready to submit to the insurance office a full two weeks before you shoot, although, at that time, my film was the only project that the NYU insurance office had to inspect.

I also began assembling a crew of students who were able to shoot on a Monday – this was a little difficult, as many students have class on that day. Furthermore, I was simultaneously planning my second day of shooting, which was to take place on the weekend of October 21st (when I would have normally shot my film if I did not have this extraordinary location and the permission to shoot early in the semester). A further complication was the availability of crew members for both days of shooting – for instance, I had promised to work on several of my friend’s films in other Intermediate Narrative classes, and it wasn’t until I had been assigned specific shooting weekends for my crew in class that I realized that Benjamin, Bobb and I, in particular, would have overlapping shooting days.

In the midst of this production process, I also had to focus on the most important aspect of the film – the casting. I held three days of auditions at the Todman Center for Film and Television, and after hearing many actors read for both roles, I ultimately cast Daniel Hasse, a nineteen year-old Tisch sophomore, as the ‘boy,’ Harry. Although Harry is written as a much younger character, I felt that a slightly older actor would be more capable of capturing and understanding Harry’s complex emotional arc in the film (not to mention the fact that, considering all of the other non-stop production concerns, it would have been a monumental challenge to cast a minor in the role, which would have resulted in even more paperwork and parental supervision on set). The actor I cast as John, the father, unfortunately dropped out of the film less than two weeks before we started shooting – on the evening of our first rehearsal, in fact. Luckily, it was a tough decision choosing between two different actors for the character of John, and once the first actor dropped out, I immediately called the other actor – Tom Corbisiero – and asked if he would be available to play the role. In the end, the first actor dropping out was a blessing in disguise – I couldn’t be happier with Tom’s commitment, professionalism and, most importantly, his wonderful performance. He signed on right away without hesitation, and he joined Dan and me for four rehearsals in the span of one week – and that’s a real commitment for an adult actor with a day job. The rehearsals were spectacular – these two actors worked very well together, and we had enough time to explore these scenes thoroughly.

In the midst of rehearsing with Tom and Dan (and assembling their costumes, as I knew I wanted Tom in a blue jean jacket and Dan wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap), Matt, Benjamin and I traveled back to Coney Island and scoped Deno’s Wonder Wheel, taking a last look at the location and addressing any shooting concerns. Mr. Vourderis and his son, who supervised my crew and me during the actual shoot, were incredibly kind and helpful throughout the entire process, particularly in regard to my requests for a specific Ferris Wheel car, the exact set-up of the water balloon game and the time it took to get them the insurance certification from New York University.

Meanwhile, Professor Sternfeld suggested particular shots and gave some fantastic notes about the script itself, which is an easy thing to forget about in the rush toward production. In short, I feel much of the success I had with this picture is attributable mostly to the pre-production period. It was a stressful September, but having secured the location over the summer was an excellent thing. Despite the last-minute replacement of an actor, I feel I succeeded most during this pre-production phase (especially with the help from the NYU administration – they made all of this possible).

The first day of shooting on Monday, October 3rd was very smooth. After so many rehearsals with the two actors, I was certain that the relationship at the center of this film, between a father and his son, would be wonderfully acted. However, during our last rehearsal, I asked one of my Assistant Directors, Mike Cheslik, to take notes. After that last rehearsal (which Benjamin filmed), Mike and I re-watched the recording of the rehearsal and made specific performance notes. Because Mike knew the specific things I was looking for in the performances, he was able to help me articulate and note what I loved versus what I didn’t love in the final rehearsal. On set, I asked him to keep the list of acting notes we made the previous night handy, and check in with me every once in a while to make sure the performances matched what I liked best during the rehearsals. Basically, I wanted Mike to work as an Assistant Director in the sense that he would actually be assisting with some of the directing – I thought this would be a good idea, as we had such limited time to shoot at Deno’s Wonder Wheel, and I didn’t want to sacrifice the great performances for the sake of time (it’s easy to plow forward during a shoot and assume that you have everything you want performance-wise – only to find that you needed that one more take in the editing room later). Mike’s position was kind of an experiment, but it wound up working wonderfully. He was honest with me when he thought that the actors didn’t quite have what I had wanted, and as a result, he helped me keep my priorities straight both on the first day of shooting and on Sunday, October 23rd – after all, I wanted more than anything to have rich, believable performances at the center of this film.

Now that some time has passed and The Wheels is well into the post-production period (I edited my own cut of the film, and then handed it over to my friend Jonah Greenstein, who is a much better editor than I am), I have been able to reflect about my experiences on set. In terms of my craft developing in the coming years, I hope to keep pushing myself technically in terms of my filmmaking. I come from an acting background, and so my primary concern will always be the quality and believability of the performances. Luckily, Benjamin Dewey is a brilliant cinematographer, and he is always giving me great ideas about how to film a particular scene. With The Wheels, I do think I conveyed early on to Benjamin what I wanted in terms of camerawork – a hand-held, gritty, realistic approach – but, as a director, I want to be equally interested in camera and performance. I do think I made progress in this department on The Wheels compared to my last movie, but I can do better.

If I can draw any lessons from this production experience, it would be that pre-production and rehearsals are the most important ingredients in making a successful movie. And, to be honest, there are still lessons I am learning with this particular movie – for instance, working with Jonah in the editing room was a fascinating experience. I was initially opposed to a major cut Jonah made in an early scene in the film – an entire exchange of dialogue was cut – and I had to determine if it actually worked better for the movie without the scene, or if the scene actually added something to the movie (in the end, Jonah was right - I was a little too attached to the footage, and it didn't particularly add anything to the story).

Overall, I learned so much about making a movie with the help of the Tisch School of the Arts and my wonderful crew, and I cannot thank Professor Sternfeld, Mr. Stolow, Mr. Wachs and Ms. Abel-Bey enough for their tremendous support and help throughout this process. I am very happy with The Wheels and the experience I had making the movie this semester – it was an incredible opportunity.

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