by Stacey DeWolfe
One day in early January, while reading a selection from the autobiography of famous porn star Harry Reems, I had an epiphany. Back in the seventies, Harry and his buddies were making these feature length films that they would shoot in one day on Super 8. They didn’t have much of a script, but they had the one thing that everyone was interested in…tons of sex. They called them one day wonders.
I realized quite early on that it while it would be fun, and increase my popularity in certain circles, to make a low-budget porno, it wasn’t really something that I was interested in pursuing. Instead I sat down and wrote out an outline for ten characters that took place in one location. It would be a morality play. An infidelity would occur under heightened circumstances that would radically affect the stability of a group of friends. The dialogue would be completely improvised. We would shoot on the first weekend of February.
There were a handful of actors who I had worked with in the past, and I approached them first. The response, without exception, was enthusiastic — so enthusiastic in fact that they were willing to be involved just for the fun of it. The rest of the group was made up of a couple of friends, and people whose work I admired. I was surprised and delighted to find that this project offered a challenge not easily found, and one that they could not resist — I cast the first ten people that I talked to. In the end, the mix of professional and non-professional actors was a blessing as they helped each other maneuver through the unstructured, but creatively demanding shoot.
Over beer and/or coffee, I met with each actor individually and gave them their characters. They were each, in their own way, active contributors to the development of the story, which by the end of the first weekend had become a tightly woven treatment (a pre-screenplay document that breaks the story into detailed scenes but does not include dialogue). On the third weekend in January, I met with the actors to discuss the project: the dynamics of the various relationships, the events of the evening and the way that the narrative would wind its way through the shoot. The following weekend, the actors returned, but this time, they were in character. They met as friends — to discuss their fears, beliefs, desires and needs. I was a fly on the wall. It was a bizarre experience to spend three hours with a group of people who didn’t speak to me or even look at me. By the end of that weekend we were ready to shoot. I bought eight hours worth of digital tape and a trunk load of groceries. My budget was 500 bucks.
The morning of the shoot began at 9 AM when my partner and I got up to clean the house (our set). At 11 AM the Director of Photography (DOP) and his assistant arrived to light the house using drugstore model 150-watt bulbs and paper lanterns. At 12:30 PM the cast arrived. At 1 PM we began to shoot.
The only way I could see approaching this type of shoot was to be very structural about it. I knew that a feature length film was my goal, so I planned for a ninety-minute final length, and then broke it down into nine ten-minute segments. The first involved three actors in a kitchen, discussing what to make for a dinner party that evening. We had two hours to shoot it; we wrapped the scene at ten minutes to three.
The first trick when shooting a ten-minute scene in less than two hours is for the cast and crew to be completely familiar with the narrative and emotional arc of the scene. Planning an improvised shoot is like drawing a road map. You show the actors where they start, and you show them where they have to get to. If you’ve done your job as a director, and they’ve done their job as actors, the characters should be able to find their own way without straying too far from the narrative path.
The second trick is to shoot on video (in this case we used digital video) so you can shoot the scene as many damn times as you like. My DOP had not come to the rehearsals — big mistake! Everyone who is involved in the shoot should attend rehearsals, because there just isn’t enough time during the shoot to explain to people why things are happening. Because we had done our jobs during the workshopping phase, I could communicate to the actors in code. I could direct the scene with a word or a gesture. This is the place that you want to be when you’ve got such a tight shooting schedule.
By 9 PM we were running just over a half an hour behind and had shot four out of nine of our segments. The fifth scene was the first to use all the actors at the same time (the full cast would be employed for the rest of the movie). The third trick is to make sure that you have someone on board whose sole purpose is keeping everyone happy and fed. My partner was in the kitchen preparing the four-course meal that would be served to the cast (onscreen and off) and crew. We had just finished shooting the fourth scene outside; the crew were nursing their cold extremities, and the actors were all sitting in the dining room, anxiously awaiting the first course and chatting.
I could feel my nerves start to fray and a slow stress begin to creep into my stomach. I had been pleasantly surprised to find that the first half of the day had gone by so efficiently. The performances thus far had been consistently impressive. Their had been little to no technical problems to contend with, and everyone was getting along like the good friends that they were supposed to be. I have the tendency to get a bit frazzled when there is too much noise happening on a set. I shouted for the first (and last) time of the night for everyone to speak softly, and we moved quickly into the fifth scene.
The fourth trick when shooting a feature film in one day with a cast of ten in a teeny apartment is to feed them well. My partner and I have prided ourselves (and will continue to do so) on feeding our cast and crew as we would feed our family. I also felt that the characters were not in the beer-and-pizza stage of their lives, but had rather moved on to such niceties as good cuts of meat and fresh vegetables. I applaud both the cast and the crew for their patience during the three-hour period during which we shot this scene. Because there was simply no time to take a break, the crew ate their meals during the shoot, and the cast tried hard to nourish themselves while trying to maintain some sort of continuity for the film, which leads to my next point.
The fifth trick is to throw continuity to the wind. With true improvisation you don’t have a lot of choice. I had made a commitment to the actors that I wouldn’t impose any structure on their actions unless it was absolutely necessary to make sure a narrative beat was hit. Everyone did their best to remember where they had been, what they had been carrying, etc. throughout the film, but the trick for me, was to envision the film in such a way so as to be able to work with what lapses in continuity were bound to occur. (After watching the footage, I can state that we were very successful on this front).
At 1:30 AM we moved into the living room to begin shooting the seventh scenes. We were, by this time, roughly two hours behind schedule, but this delay was not problematic for me. The sixth trick is to ask your actors in advance for a flexible wrap time. We had all discussed this point ad nauseam, and it had been agreed by all cast and crew members that we would wrap the film when we were done. This gave us the freedom to work at the pace that had naturally developed, although I did strive to keep the filming as close to schedule as was humanly possible.
When I had set out to write the initial story, I was fully aware of when we would be shooting. Because the very act of improvising is exhausting enough, I wanted to create, as best I could, a natural environment for them to work within. The seventh trick is to write a scenario that allows the characters to do what the actors would be doing anyway. When the clock hit 2 AM, the script called for them to be lounging around on the floor, tired and full, sipping the tail ends of their glasses of wine. They could yawn and slouch — if they wanted to, they could even fall asleep. Again, everyone knew where they were coming from and where they had to go. Best of all, they knew at which points throughout the night they could take a bit of a rest, letting the other characters go to work for a while.
By 6 AM we still had one scene to go and it was a big one. The big crisis and the big resolution. I had conceived of it taking place in several rooms in a state of full out chaos, with a lot of moving around, and therefore a lot of blocking. The scene before I had expected to wrap up in about a half an hour, but it had taken us almost four times that long. It was a crucial scene, and I knew that there was no point in abandoning it until it was right.
The eighth trick is knowing when to put the director to rest and be a friend. The director in me wanted to shoot for three or four more hours, but the friend in me saw that I was losing even the most energetic of my cast. The crew was tired and aching, the food was nearly gone and nobody was thinking with much clarity — including myself. I roused everyone and moved them back into the dining room. We would play out the rest of the film, seated in the dining room — the action would all take place there, and with the exception of a couple of characters, everyone could remain seated. With weary resolve the actors all took their places, and I, for the first time that evening, began to impose a structure onto how the scene would play out.
The ninth trick could be the most important thing that I did through the whole shoot — knowing the strengths of your actors. Though the scene was playing at approximately the right time, we were now several hours behind, and while the characters were supposed to be tired, they were not supposed to be listless. I had cast one of the actors because I knew him to be a great comic improviser. He had the ability to come up with a punch line on a moment’s notice, and I really needed him to come through now. The actor was to start the scene with a joke, after which the final action would occur. The scene would close with one of the characters bringing in breakfast. We did eight takes and every single time he came up with something funnier than the last. At one point, the DOP laughed so hard that he fell to the floor, almost dropping the camera on the way down.
The tenth trick is to always end the film with someone bringing in big trays of fruit and coffee. After a 22-hour day, there is no better way to end a shoot.
Born in 1967, Stacey DeWolfe is an award-winning filmmaker and writer based in Montreal. She has produced short films, directed longer ones and written screenplays. She is a founding member of the film jamming collective 2-4-5 and is a co-publisher of the film journal, Moving Picture Views.