Don’t I Get a Little Credit for That?

Me, at a production meeting for “Isn’t It Romantic?”

The title of this post is another of Danny Kresky’s lines.  Danny, of course, is the character I am playing in my upcoming short film, ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  He says it to his wife in the climatic final scene.  With production growing closer by the minute, the line is apropos for how I am feeling now.

My confidence is growing every day.  The significance of what I’m doing is becoming more clear.  I’m directing my first film.  It’s really happening.  Nervous?  Sure, to a certain extent, but more than anything else thrilled beyond words. And quite frankly, fully prepared to do this job and do it well.

As we near the start of shooting, the preparation has intensified.  I send numerous emails and make numerous phone calls every day.  My  previously near crippling phone call phobia is becoming a just a memory.  I had to call a business representative at SAG today and I did it without batting an eye.  I’m getting good at this.  Really good.

I set extremely high standards for myself and don’t always appreciate each small step forward I make.  Today, I thought back to when I first started this project.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed on things.  To be sure, I’ve had plenty of help.  My strategy from the start was to surround myself with people who know what they are doing and let them do it.  Still, I have to lead them.  They are following me, working to bring my vision to life.  I’m hitting my stride and driving the hell out of this bus.  And I did it the hard way.

I have never attended film school, never worked as a grip or a PA.  Never was present at a production meeting until the first one that I ran.  This has been on the job training in every sense of the word.  My experienced team members have counseled me, and I’ve taken that advice and run with it.  I’ve got everything under control.  When a problem occurs, I come up with a solution, or brain storm with team members and we solve it together.  I’m listening to suggestions and evaluating them carefully, using what I need and politely declining the rest.

In addition to our weekly production meetings, I have regular meetings constantly with various members of my team to discuss different aspects of production.  As the director, I have my hand in everything.  I’m also in constant contact with my cast and the owners of the locations.  At first, I was worried my social awkwardness would prevent me from doing this.  But I feel comfortable with it.  I’m enjoying it.  Looking forward to it.  I’m actually growing as a person at a rate not seen since childhood.

Another phenomenon that is becoming very clear to me is the growing respect I feel from my team.  They all loved the script from the start and were eager to be a part of this.  Now, I can feel the confidence they have in me.  I have told them all that we are going to make a great movie and they believe it.  Believe in me.  It’s such a good feeling and a real boost to my self esteem.

The question that I chose for the title of this post is the one I now ask myself.  I said I would rise to the occasion and I’m doing just that.  I seriously have to give myself a little credit.  And if I can do this in such a short time, in such a difficult manner, who knows what else I can achieve?  The sky’s the limit.  My days as an underachiever may finally be over.

I’ve struggled my whole life with a number of issues; self esteem, anxiety, depression.  I’ve been in therapy and made considerable progress but never quite got where I needed to be.  I feel like I’m racing toward it now.  I like myself more.  I feel like other people like me. Imagine.  All the money my parents and I spent on therapy.  I should have made a movie years ago.

The Great Danny Kresky

With the first day of shooting three weeks from today, there’s another job that I have on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  that I need to begin working on.  I’ve spent most of my time being Paul Rothbart real life writer/director.  But for this film to work, I have to be just as effective as Danny Kresky, the fictitious and highly successful writer/director who is IIR’s protagonist.

Danny likes to refer to himself as “The Great Danny Kresky”.  He’s tremendously successful and has no problem telling anyone about it. Danny is extremely bright, very talented and really funny.  He’s got a hyperactive imagination and tends to blur reality and the fantasy of the movies.  Danny is very much like his creator, just exaggerated.  He is based on my stand up persona.  I’ve played him thousands of times.  But always as a comic.  Now, I’ve got to portray him as a character in a film.

The real challenge is in creating a convincing relationship with my co-writer and co-star who is playing Danny’s lovely wife, Diana.  Diana is smart and stable, a grounding influence on Danny.  Without her, he would not have succeeded at the level that he has.  They’ve been married twenty years and despite the problems they have in the film, they are devoted to each other and still very much in love.

This is where we both need to work.  Neither myself nor my co-star has ever been married or in a relationship nearly that long.  We’ve only known each other a little over a year.  We are friends and click very well as writing partners and have displayed chemistry in reading these and other roles together.  I have faith we can pull this off, but we do need to work on it.

We’ve both already begun developing the characters.  Actually not too difficult for either of us.  As I said, Danny is based on my stand up persona and I wrote Diana for my co-star, based upon her and she has tweaked Diana to fit.  Now, we’ve got to rehearse so we can realistically portray the ups and downs of the Kreskys.  It’s one of the keys to this film succeeding.  I have faith in both of us.  And I’m willing to do whatever it takes.  She feels that way too.  This film is our baby and we’re going to make it work.

A Delicate Balance

I’ve already discussed the differences between writing and directing.  When writing, the sky is limit.  I can create anything my little heart desires.  Staging all those wonderful things and capturing them on camera is another story, especially when money and time are limited.

It is a balancing act.  I am staying true to my original concept for ISN’T ROMANTIC?, but I’ve got to plan my shots within the parameters of what we can afford and what can be done in a reasonable amount of time.  It’s not easy, but with the right effort, it is possible.  The key is effective communication and respect between myself and key members of my team.  Things are going beautifully in that regard.

I had a meeting this afternoon with my director of photography and my first assistant director, two of the most important members of my crew.  The DP is the eyes of a film and using his technical and creative skills, gives a director the images needed to tell the story in the way the director envisions.  The DP is the second highest ranking person on set and runs the crew.  The 1st AD runs the set.  He calls crew and cast to the set, calls for quiet and keeps everything running so the director can focus on the creative aspects of the film.  And in my case, playing my role.

The two guys I have in those positions are terrific.  Both are much more experienced than I am. They offer advice and suggestions without being condescending and with respect for my vision for the film.  They always explain why they are proposing their ideas and what the benefits would be.  They’re much more tech savvy than I am and understand visual storytelling.   I enjoyed myself very much at the meeting, learned more things about lighting and we are closer to being ready for production, which begins in a mere three weeks.

On a less positive note, we’ve had our first glitch.  I knew it was coming sooner or later, things were going much too smoothly.  The family who owns the house we are shooting in, will be out of town on the last scheduled day of our shoot.  A problem to be sure, but just a speed bump.  A good director solves problems and always has a plan B.  I proposed a couple of solutions to my guys, and my AD came up with a good alternate schedule.  It will push back the finish of production a couple of weeks, but will actually make things easier and give us more time to get things right.  And not cost us any more money.  I’ve got to run it by the team at our production meeting Tuesday night.

A huge positive is that we are in excellent shape financially.  I’m going to bring this movie in considerably under budget.  A very good thing for a director to be able to do, especially since I would like to make a movie with a big budget for a big production company some day.  Always a plus when you can save them some money.

Money, time, creativity.  It’s a juggling act.  So far, I’ve got all the balls still in the air.  I think I’m getting the hang of this.

I Get It Now

I’ve been writing since early childhood.  We all have multiple labels we put on ourselves.  We’re parents, siblings, friends, employees, employers, you get it.  Some labels are just there but we take great pride in others.  I have always been happy to call myself a writer.  In fact, I have always said I am first and foremost a writer.

As such, I tend to stick up for my fellow writers, understanding the unique skill we possess and our desire and necessity to get our thoughts, ideas and feelings on paper.  When I was young, it bothered me that a film was said to be the director’s.  I felt it should belong to the writer.  As I grew more experienced and learned more about filmmaking, I understood more about the director’s role.  But I still felt writers were being short changed.  For example, one of my favorite movies, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY … (excellent use of punctuation by the way, an ellipsis!) begins with the words, “A Rob Reiner Film”.  Yes, Rob Reiner directed it and he did a terrific job, but it was written by the late, great Nora Ephron, a genius of a writer.  It still bothered me.  Until now.

Now, I get it.  I am less than four weeks from production on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? but I’ve been through enough that I clearly see, it’s the director’s film regardless of who wrote the script.  Not to degrade what we do, screenwriters work hard.  A screenplay is one of the most challenging pieces of writing there is.  But directing is 1000 times more challenging.  Because it takes place in reality.

When writing, I can put literally anything on the page.  Words can create and describe whatever my imagination dreams up.  Granted, while writing IIR, I did try to keep it simple so I could shoot it on a low budget.  But I didn’t let it restrict me.  I used whatever elements were necessary.  I do envision what the film will look like while writing, but I don’t have to think about how to stage it or cover it with a camera.  That burden now falls on the director in me.

Working on my shot list is proving difficult.  I’ve got all of the shots planned except for a couple of scenes that involve my protagonist shooting a film.  They’re complex with three speaking roles, several extras and furniture and film equipment.  I’ve got floor plans of the set and lots of photographs, but it’s still tough.  Blocking the actors and figuring out where to put the camera to compose the frames I need is tricky.  I’m through with my stick figure storyboards.  They just aggravate me and are so poorly drawn they’re confusing in more complex shots.  Next movie I direct, I either hire a storyboard artist or I get photos of people on the set where the actors will be.

I know what I need to communicate to the audience and how I want to display it visually.  Setting that up in three dimensional space with real people so that it photographs in a two dimensional image is quite a challenge.  I have a whole new respect for directors.

It’s your movie, Rob Reiner.  Nice work!

Taking Stock

The handful of you who actually follow my blog (I don’t know how you do it, even I get sick of me!) know that I’ve been in a melancholy mood lately.  I’ve been allowing myself to be overly affected by a little roller coaster ride I’ve been on for almost a year now.  I keep looking at the film I’m shooting and seeing all the things I have yet to accomplish.  It’s a bad habit I have.  I tend to look at the goals ahead of me and worry about what I haven’t done.  At least once in awhile, I need to take a look back at everything that I have accomplished.  I’m not doing so bad.

Since I was in high school, I’ve wanted to make a movie.  I would think about it, what it would be like, how exciting it would be.  I’ve waited a long time for that and now it’s happening.  I realized I’ve already accomplished a lot.  I’ve got two absolutely beautiful locations that will greatly add to the production value of ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  We are using them at a cost that easily fits our budget.  I managed that with my passion and personality.

I’ve got an excellent cast.  We’re not talking friends and family or community theater actors.  I’ve got four, experienced well-trained, professional actors.  As for me, I’m a stand up comic.  I can do anything!  I’ll be great in my part.  My cast likes the script.  They’re eager to go.  I have no doubt they will do an outstanding job.

Of course, I have plenty of help.  My production team is working hard and they are dedicated.  I realized that I motivated them.  They liked my script, they believe in me.  They picked up on my passion and energy.  I’m doing what a good director is supposed to do.  Leading my team.

Four weeks ago when we started preproduction there was a huge list of details that I sweated.  There were questions about whether or not eight weeks was enough time to get ready.  That list is now considerably smaller.  We are right on track and as long as everyone is diligent, we will be ready for production on October 13.

I may not have everything I want, but I am living out a life long dream.  How many people can say that?  And who knows?  If this film comes out as well as I hope, I just might be able get what I want the most.  Sorry, I can’t reveal what that is.  Let’s just say it would blow away the gray skies and I would be genuinely happy.

Shot List and Storyboards

I’ve done enough whining in my recent posts.  Time to get back to filmmaking.  With the start of production exactly four weeks from today, it’s time to get down to business.  I’ve been spending this week working on my shot list and storyboards.  Both are essential tools to facilitate the shoot.

Most people are familiar with storyboards.  They’re drawings laid out in panels like a comic strip, depicting the shot by shot action of a scene.  They are vital in designing action scenes that contain stunts.  My film, a romantic comedy, has no heavy action.  Nevertheless, my editor has requested I do storyboards.  They will be very helpful in giving him an idea of how he will put the film together and in making sure we get the necessary footage.

It’s funny because although I am a multitalented person, drawing is not among those skills.  Productions with more money hire professional artists who draw beautiful, detailed storyboards.  We don’t have the budget for that, so it’s me scratching out stick figures. They look terrible, but they are effective in picturing what the scene will look like and how we need to set up the camera.

A shot list is exactly what it sounds like.  It is a list of each shot we will capture in a scene, the type i.e. wide, medium, close up, etc., angle, any pans, zooms or moves and a description of the action.  When you watch a film,  you see a serious of individual shots that were put together by an editor.  In a good movie, they cut together so smoothly, you don’t notice.  That’s the number one sign of good editing.  There are many shots and each one is planned ahead of time by the director.  It’s a big job.

The reason is that the shots are not arbitrarily chosen.  There is what is known as “standard coverage”.  For example, in a dialogue scene, you would shoot a two shot of both actors, and then an “over the shoulder” shot or close up of each one.  It could then be cut together showing either both actors, or either one speaking or reacting.  It’s effective, but boring and lacks creativity.  The way to do it is to analyze each scene in minute detail, finding the moment to moment essence, the subtext, what each character is really doing.  Then, the shots are designed to convey that information to the audience.  The most important information has to be made crystal clear, even if it’s on a subconscious level.  That is the challenge the director faces.  Choosing the individual shots and then putting them together to tell the story in a coherent manner.

It’s going well.  I watch films over and over, studying and analyzing scenes in great detail.  It’s a terrific way to learn techniques.  I also have the ability to visualize what my film will look like.  I’ve already seen it in my mind.  Now, I’ve got to get it on the screen.  I intend to be fully prepared but open to any inspirations that may occur once on set.

I’ve already visited my main location twice and my movie theater once.  I’ve got dozens of photos of my sets to aid me in the process.  Something that I find fascinating is how my idol, Woody Allen works.  He never looks at his sets ahead of time and does not make a shot list or storyboards.  He shows up without a single preplanned idea of what he will shoot or how he will shoot it.

This is very rare among directors.  Even the very best tend to prepare.  It’s really amazing that he can work that way.  It’s something I think would be cool to try someday as an experiment.  But not now.  The fact that I’m directing at all is a big enough experiment.  I’ll wait until I have a considerable amount of experience before I think about trying to do it Woody’s way.

Well, back to work for me.  I’ve got stick figures to draw.

 

Melancholia: Why My Skies Are Always Gray

Things continue to progress nicely for ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  Tomorrow, I’ll finish my shot list and storyboards and Sunday afternoon, I have a meeting with my director of photography, editor and first assistant director.  We’ll put together the schedule for each day of shooting.  Once we have that level of preparation, the shoot will go smoother.  We will be better able to handle any curveballs that may be tossed our way.

Other members of my team met today to work on set design, wardrobe and props.  I have a team of dedicated and talented individuals who believe in this project every bit as much as I do.  Just about everything is in place.  Of course, one thing that we can’t control is the weather.  We can only hope it cooperates during our exterior scenes.

Shooting in October in the Northeast will give us the beautiful colors of fall on the trees.  The final scene of the movie takes place outside, and there are numerous trees on the private estate where we’re shooting.  It should be beautiful, especially for a film about romance.  Naturally, we are hoping for no rain and mild temperatures.  Personally, I am also rooting for gray skies.

A bright, blue sky with a  few puffy clouds is the standard “perfect” weather scenario.  But I’ve seen enough movies in my day to know that a gray sky with a little haze adds a much more romantic feel to a movie.  It’s wistful, just a little melancholy.  It adds a dreamlike feel to the film.  After all, movies are often compared to dreams, and they sure as hell are nothing like real life.

I love gray skies in real life as well.  I feel as though they are the backdrop of my life.  They define my most common mood.  Blue and sunny doesn’t cut it, nor does dark and stormy.  Just gray, with the sun occasionally looking like it will break through, but it never does.  Melancholy.  That’s me.

I’m in a reflective mood tonight, so bear with me.  I know I’m rambling, but that’s my style.  I’m just throwing my thoughts down.  I’ve always loved going to the movies.  It’s about escape for me.  In the darkness of a movie theater, I am able to get my mind off all the things I don’t want to think about.  It’s the only place that happens.  It’s what I hope my films can provide for someone out there like me.

It’s often a difficult transition when the movie is over.  I watch a comedy where the smart, funny guy wins the girl; beats the really good looking jerk.  It’s a good feeling.  Then the lights come up and I look at the empty seat next to me.  It’s back to reality, where things like that NEVER happen.  Melancholy.  Gray skies.

Now, I’m directing my first film and also playing the lead.  I’m playing a married man with an amazing wife.  It’s more escapism.  That will never happen to me in real life.  What will it feel like when we’re finished with the film?  When reality rears it’s ugly head again.  No matter how well this film does, deep inside, I won’t be truly happy.  I will never be.

I’m very fortunate in that I’m a tough little bastard.  This would destroy a lesser man.

My Dilemma

30 days until production begins.  In a month, I will be on a set, directing my first film.  I feel very good about it.  I’ve worked long, hard hours preparing.  I have an amazing team who have worked equally hard.  I’ve got a great cast, two beautiful locations and enough money to see the project through completion.  Naturally, I’m a bit nervous, that’s to be expected.  But I am confident in my ability to direct this movie and there is not a doubt in my mind that it will turn out well.  I do have a bit of a problem, though.

It’s essentially an unrelated issue, except it is tied into the production of my film.  It involves the most important member of my team.  I’ve  been dealing with this for almost a year now and it is quite distracting.  Compounding the problem is that there is no one with whom I feel comfortable discussing it.  Not looking for someone to solve it per se, just someone to listen so I can get it off my chest.  It’s so hard to carry this around alone.

I had a really good friend, a woman, who I talked to about it all the time.  She and I got close, strictly platonic, but we confided in each other.  There were things I told her that no one else knows, not even family.  She moved.  Her cell number is no longer working and she doesn’t answer my emails.  I’m actually worried about her.  I’m also left to deal with my problem alone.

I’m considering writing an article about it.  Again, not expecting anyone to solve it, but it would feel good to get it out and I wouldn’t mind getting opinions.  What worries me is that someone I know might see it.  I would then have to enter the witness protection program.  I couldn’t face anyone if they knew how I’m being affected by this.  Especially the person it directly involves.

I have to think about this.  Maybe I’ll throw it out there.  I really don’t know what else to do.

Our Other Location

Warner Theater

The beautiful and historic Warner Theater in Torrington, CT, the location for the opening scene of “Isn’t It Romantic?”

 

The photo above is an approximation of the opening shot of the short film I am shooting, ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  The marquee displays the title of the fictitious film written and directed by the protagonist, Danny Kresky.  (For the record, SOUL MATE is the title of a feature screenplay of mine, a romantic comedy that has been generating some interest.  It was a contest finalist and one way or the other, it will be on the screen some day.)

The opening scene of our comedy short takes place at a movie theater.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was not able to get in touch with anyone at the theater two blocks from my house, or receive any help from the local film commission.  I was very fortunate.  That theater is a nice little venue, but look at that photo.  The Warner is gorgeous!

Built in the 30’s by Warner Brothers, and restored decades later, it is seriously one of the nicest theaters in the entire Northeast.  My co-writer, my director of photography and I took a tour of the incredible facility yesterday.  The scene is very brief and takes place in the lobby.  We were very tempted to rewrite it and include the auditorium.

The Warner has a number of programs to promote and support local performing artists.  Stage shows, concerts and programs for children are regularly held.  They were very receptive to allowing us to shoot there and are letting us do it for free.  That’s the kind of support independent filmmakers need to create original and entertaining movies.  The executive director was incredibly generous.  They are going to set up the marquee for us.  (It was photoshopped in the picture above)  They are also going to provide us with some extras for the background of the scene, and a place for the actors to rest and for us to set up our craft service tables.

We were so deeply moved by this show of generosity.  I feel as though our production has been blessed.  Things are going so well.  We have two truly beautiful locations that will add greatly to the production value.  I’ve got a great cast and crew.  An entire team working hard and dedicated to making a great film.

This whole venture is succeeding beyond anything I could have imagined.  The heat is on.  All the elements are in place.  No excuses.  I’ve got to guide this team and bring it home.  Luckily for me, I thrive under pressure.

The Cast Is Set

This past Sunday, we held auditions in a rented studio in Midtown, right around the corner from The Ed Sullivan Theater.  What a great experience!  I’ve always dreamed of making a movie and now it’s happening.  As an East Coast guy and a native New Yorker, I never had visions of Hollywood.  I’ve always had the desire to shoot on the streets of my home town and at the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens.  I haven’t quite gotten there, yet, but our casting session gave me a little taste.

I was very happy with the caliber of the actors who submitted.  I spent hours watching reels and chose a nice stable to bring in and read for us.  We have our cast set and I am quite pleased.  I had a couple of tough decisions to make and the actors I’ve chosen are going to add greatly to the production.

The most difficult decision I had was in casting the part of “Lance Wilson”.  Lance is a movie star.  Good looking.  A heart throb.  It’s a tricky part to play because Lance has capped teeth and cosmetic surgery and deep inside is still the insecure nebbish.  We needed an actor with the right look and the ability to play it.

It came down to two candidates.  One was a terrific actor, very funny and extremely creative.  Low maintenance. I got the feeling he wouldn’t need a lot of direction.  He didn’t quite have that matinee idol look though.  I was on the fence about bringing him in for that reason, but he was such a good actor, I decided to take a look.  He gave an outstanding audition and impressed all of us.

The other actor was good, but not as good.  He did have a great look.  Truly like a movie star.  I was impressed because he learned the lines.  (I sent all the actors the scenes they would be reading.  I don’t  like cold readings, I want them to have every chance to succeed.)  He didn’t bring the script with him.  My co-star pointed out to me what a risk that is and that an actor really shouldn’t do that.  Honestly, I admired the boldness and confidence.  It’s like something I would do.

It was an incredibly difficult decision.  You love casting the best actor when you can.  Ultimately, we HAD to have a guy the audience will buy as a heart throb.  I chose the lesser actor with the right look.  He was still good and seemed like a nice guy.  I got a good vibe from him.  I feel that I can work with him and get him where he needs to be.

I do feel bad though.  I so wanted to cast the smart, funny guy.  Good looking guys always win.  I feel like I betrayed my own kind.  Nevertheless, I did what was right for the movie and I feel good about that.  As my co-writer pointed out to me, I created the character.  So I had to cast him.

The other two parts are small; two lines each.  I honestly wish they were bigger, the two actors I cast are that good.  The parts are two female movie goers who exit a theater and discuss the film they just saw, which was written and directed by the protagonist.

The first one I knew I wanted when I saw her reel.  She has a lot of experience in short films and I watched her clips about four times.  She is a Kathy Bates type and has a fire that touched me.  Very subtle and natural and she comes across well on camera.  Her audition was dynamite!  She touched me from across the room adding a poignancy to a comedic scene that gave it depth.  Her first take was great, but I had them all do it twice.  The second time I gave them an adjustment to see how they took direction.  She made a very slight, but palpable change that was equal to her first take.  She had a quiet confidence about her as well.  She was in.  It would have taken Meryl Streep walking into that room to change my mind.

The other woman I cast was also very good.  She’s a friend of my co-writer, so I know she is a professional that I can count on.  She was natural, made her adjustment well, and visually will work very well with the other woman.

So, there it is.  We have the cast.  Four excellent actors and me, the comedian who’s basically playing himself.  This is going to work.  I’m proving to be the genius I always knew I was.