Monday, April 16, 2012

Earrings: Filming Part 1

Making a movie is hard. You want everything to go right, but you have to be willing to accept that some things won’t. Every single step of the filmmaking process is, to me, about translating the vision in your head into a coherent final product. There are hiccups and hurdles and frustrations, but, when you’re the crazy son of a bitch responsible for the whole thing, it’s important to step back, breathe, and remember. Remember that, hell, making movies sure does beat working.

But more on that later.

To be clear: filming for Earrings is going fantastic so far. We’re halfway through shooting, with two more days of principle photography to get in the can, and I couldn’t be in a better place emotionally and creatively. Translating ideas onto the page has never been difficult for me; by the time I’m completely finished with a script, I’m always confident that it is the story I want to tell. Shooting a film is different. There are so many outside factors that appear to want nothing more than to damage the vision you set for yourself. But there’s a trick to trumping the curveballs: hire people who know what the fuck they’re doing.
An "untouched" still photo from filming
Catherine and I have been friends for many years, so we have a vernacular on set, or lack thereof, that is completely cohesive during the shooting of a movie. I can say very little about how I want her to play or tweek a scene, and she is able to translate that flawlessly onto the screen. She doesn’t forget lines or gestures or mannerisms – she improves upon them.

Yesterday was the most difficult day emotionally of shooting. We spent the majority of the evening filming several scenes that required her to give everything, which she did, and then some. There’s really not much more I can say about the work she’s doing other than I simply cannot wait to share it with you all. Switching the lead role of this movie from a man to a woman was the smartest thing that could’ve been done. Period.
Another still image from set
Likewise the talents of Martin, Andrew, and Nathan, the three other major players of the cast. Each have taken my direction incredibly, and have never once given the slightest shred of pushback if some of those outside factors are fucking things up. For example, this morning I spent six hours on top of a mountain in Los Angeles filming a very lengthy conversation between Catherine and Martin. But because of the helicopters and airplanes and dogs and women on their cell phones, capturing the sound was a nightmare. They had to do it over and over and over and over. Throughout this, they never presented the faintest shred of frustration. I simply couldn’t ask for a better crew.

Which brings me to another point. Film is often considered a visual medium. Think about it, how many times do you find yourself talking about that excellent piece of sound mixing? Hardly ever. You discuss cash registers being thrown through convenience store windows in slow motion. Or the magnetic way half of Liv Ullman’s face matches with half of Bibi Andersson’s face. I’m an extremely visual person, and it has taken me until this movie to understand the importance (no, the necessity) of capturing crisp sound on a movie set. I’ve never pretended to know much about the art of recording sound, but I can tell you, after spending a few days with Dan, my sound engineer, I have a newfound respect for people who make a living holding boom mics.
Dan and I have polar opposite methods of filming. I’m fast and raw and speak my own language. Dan is patient, decisive, and is in dire need of hearing the words “action” and “cut.” I’ve never, literally never, begun a take with the word “action” and ended it with “cut.” It seems so… snappy to me. As in: Perform, now! But I’ve learned that many crew members on a set need those words to do their jobs. Basically, having someone like Dan around, someone with completely different philosophies on cinematic capture, has been remarkable. I’m not annoyed that he does things differently, I’m enlightened.

A final note on those hiccups and hurdles. After the 12th take of Catherine and Martin’s long conversation was ruined by the persistent sound of airplanes, I put the camera down and walked away. I needed a minute to shield my aggravation. Everyone was performing so well, and to have their work ruined by things we couldn’t control was just crippling. So I looked out.

I looked out over Wilacre Park. Over Studio City resting miles below. I took in the bright blue sky, the plush green trees and the 80 degree sun. I closed my eyes and reminded myself aloud that if I wasn’t here, shooting a movie under the Los Angeles sun, then I’d be behind a desk wondering when I’m going to make my next movie. I opened my eyes and looked back at Catherine, Martin, and Dan, who were all waiting for me to come back and say “action.” Which I did. I know no better feeling than that.


  1. Your patience and determination is admirable, as is that of your cast and crew. Great blog post Alex.

    I find myself thinking more and more about things like sound when I watch movies these days. I'm slowly becoming more conscious of the painstaking processes that go into making a movie look and sound as close to perfection as possible. It really is admirable.

  2. @Tyler Thanks Tyler! I have been becoming more aware of the sound aspect of films lately, but I never knew it was this intense. It is so very intricate.

    Thanks again for such a kind comment.

  3. Fuck helicopters. I wish there were such things as silent engines.
    I'm the same as Dan in a way. I'm a bit anal about the scene and take being called, it makes it feel official and gives me time to get in position (another tech question - are you recording your sound into the camera or synching in post? I like knowing tidbits like that, haha)
    You're almost there, and if airplanes are the worst of your problems then the film is going to be great! I can't wait to see it!! :D Woowoo!

  4. @Ruth I knew you'd understand my pain! We're recording the audio independently, and I'll be syncing it in post, which will be... tricky, but oh well.

    Thanks for your kind words, Ruth!

  5. Beautifully written post! It's amazing how much patience you have. I'd lose it completely if something interrupted me so many times.

    It's a great point you make about sound in the movies, I never notice it either, except maybe for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Artist" last year. Other than that it sort of blends it, which is probably the most impressive thing about it - the people responsible for sound put so much effort, yet it almost seems effortless as you just take it in, without thinking too much about it.

  6. Sounds like things are going well, can't wait to see the final product! I am sure you will be careful with the editing part, you seem to be very in control of things :) p.s. How was Coachella? did you go to that?

  7. @Sati. You are absolutely right about the people who work with sound - it's the hidden art form within movies. Thanks for commenting, Sati!

  8. @Diana Thanks! Editing the sound will SUCK, but editing the video will be a total blast. Aside from writing the script, editing is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

    Leaving for Coachella today!

  9. Really digging your Earrings posts, Alex. I can only imagine how difficult it is to get everything to work out just the way you want it, especially as you have to deal random BS noises. It will all be worth it in the long run, and I can't wait to see your final product.

  10. @Eric Thanks Eric! It's comments like these that keep me going. Truly. So, thank you.

  11. Sound! This is why they moved to Hollywood, spent millions of dollars building giant studios. So that they could fire people for breathing too loudly.

    I really enjoyed this post Alex, you completely captured the frustration and joy of being a film maker.

    1. Ah, that day... man, that was just rough. A very very difficult day. But, hell, it certainly beats workin'.

      Thanks so much for commenting on all of these posts, Toby. I haven't read these entries for months. Weird to go back and track my own process.

    2. It was a pleasure, I probably enjoyed it more knowing that you achieved your goal and the end product was worth all the effort.

      Hey, you made me watch my film for the first time in a year without cringing too much. I should be thanking you.