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A Film in Two Weeks: Assembling the Team

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This is a series documenting the making of Blanc de Blanc, a feature-length film shot and edited in two weeks. The finished product is screening around Pittsburgh. Or, you can pre-order a DVD from the webpage.

Part III: Pre-production

You know how when you watch the bonus features on a DVD and they show those pre-production meetings where everyone's sitting around a big table in a big room? Everyone's got a copy of the script they've broken down, a big pile of notes, and a Starbucks to-go cup. They all seem so organized. You know the ones I mean? I've never sat at one of those tables. In the no-budget film world, that scene doesn't exist. We have our meetings in someone's living room or at a Starbucks or, if you work on one of my films, at a bar.

Actually, if you want to get people to work on a film without a budget, buying beer goes a long, long way.

Of course, we don't have a script to break down. All we've really got is a story and three weeks before we have to start shooting. Nor do we have a cast. Or a crew. Or equipment. Or money. In short, we're kind of in trouble.

Let's break this down into how we put together the separate components.

1. Cast. We have one cast member on board already. Rachel Shaw, who starred in my last film (gravida), is willing to play the female lead. She's a pretty great actress and we've worked together, so that's a variable out of the way. Plus, I know that she won't require a lot of direction during filming, which is extremely important for our time frame.

But the film centers around a male lead who has to be able to play well off her, so Rachel and I make a list of male actors in the city. Thing is, none of them are available for the dates we need. They all seem to be available in June, but that doesn't really help us. I was in a play[1] a couple of years ago with our first choice, Trent Wolfred, who has some limited availability (and agrees to play Rachel's brother), but suggests Jason Kirsch, a waiter whose restaurant recently closed (and who therefore has tons of time). I saw Jason once in a play, so I know he's pretty good. I meet with him at a coffee shop and he's perfect. He has the exact look we need and has a familiarity with the film's central mystery that you can't really learn.

Dan Stiker, a theater director I've worked with a couple of times, volunteers with a certain amount of vigor to play a creepy, mysterious man operating on the outskirts of the film. The character smokes, but Dan doesn't, making this the second time he's been in one of my films where he's had to smoke. That leaves us with one significant character left to cast and no one is available. No one.

2. Money. Very funny.

3. Crew. The first crew member to sign up is Josh Thomas, a guy I went to college with who does video production at a local church. He has "some equipment we can use," which is always helpful in situations like this. Beyond that, we have part of the tiny crew from my last film: David Eger (DP), Don Yockey (gaffer), and John Gallagher (sound, etc). It's one of those crews where everyone will do a little bit of everything. The only thing that's missing is a dedicated sound person, which in Pittsburgh can sometimes be impossible to find. There's only a couple of them in town, and they're almost always in demand.

4. Equipment. If you've ever edited video before, you know that logging and uploading tapes takes a lot of time. Hours and hours of time. We, of course, do not have this luxury, so it becomes a priority to try and find a tapeless workflow. No one in the crew has this sort of set-up, but my day job (at the time) is with a company that's affiliated with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I have an ex who works over there, but I haven't spoken to her in years. But this is no budget filmmaking. We do what we must. She's able to get me in touch with the head of the film and video department, who is kind enough to lend us a Panasonic HVX camera for the first weekend — free of charge. We're pretty sure my five-year-old Mac can handle the editing, so with a few firewire drives, we are more or less in business.

But back to those pre-production meetings you always see on the DVD bonus features. A couple of them take place in our living room, but most of them take place on the back patio of a local martini bar. Ideas flow better that way.

Our meetings are pretty informal. Essentially they boil down to an extended discussion about the story, digging into as many aspects of it as possible, fleshing out the backstory, the character motivations, everything that's going to inform what the characters will do. We jot down outlines. We sketch out a few scenes. When we're not meeting, Rachel, Jason, and I write some scenes individually, then figure out what to keep when we meet again. It's pretty much what you'd imagine of a process where there's no time to write anything but an extended outline with a few scripted scenes scattered throughout.

Visually, both Dave and I know that we're not going to have a lot of time to tweak lights until we're happy, but we don't want to just throw the camera on someone's shoulder and run around. We'd like, as much as possible, to have a visual language for the film beyond the standard mumblecore aesthetic. We figure the visuals are going to have to do some heavy lifting for the script. Dave decides to do the majority of the lights with two Kino stands and a basic light kit borrowed from Josh's church.

And with that, we're more or less ready to start.

[1] I'm not an actor, but if a local production needs someone to walk on stage and be crudely disruptive, curse at the other actors, and be drunk (not act drunk, be drunk), they call me. In this play, I picked a fight with Trent and, immediately after, the audience. I very nearly got beat up.

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About Lucas McNelly

  • Kudos! No equipment, no money, no time, no crew, no cast and 2 weeks from shoot to post?!
    Impossible, I’d say. Except I just saw Gravida…

    I’ll be watching your Twitter space. Wishing you continuous success.