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By Shane’s Inner Circle member: Gabe Sheets
Directing: An Art of Insecurity
Director Gabe Sheets directing Lead Actor, Scott Michael Dunn, and Actor, Richard Louis Ulrich, while they rehearse a scene before shooting. In the background, Director of Photography, Austin McCardie, stands by with the Steadicam.
I rushed into the gas station bathroom as if it were the scene we had just filmed yesterday for my movie. It’s June 1st, 2017, the second day of principal photography on the second short film I’ve written and directed, Fugue. Things are not going well, and unfortunately, the sun isn’t a light your grips can control.
Moments earlier, I asked my 1st Assistant Director, Wyatt Weed, if I can take a second. The stress is building, and I know I am going to crack, which is something I certainly didn’t want to do in front of the entire crew. We are currently shooting an exterior scene at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
My gaffer and grips are running around trying to control the sun the best they can as it rapidly changes; my sound mixer is trying to get a handle on his sound recorder that is overheating and ceasing to record throughout each take; my actors are not giving me the performances I want, and continuity is giving me a headache. This was one of my favorite scenes in the screenplay; however, this could very well be the weakest scene in the film. Wyatt couldn’t have put it any better than when I had asked him how we were doing schedule-wise. He simply looked at his wristwatch and said, “We are dead on time.”
I headed inside and found the lonely, minuscule bathroom that was all the way at the back. I began to splash ice cold water on my face, trying to wake myself up from this mess of a shoot I promised myself I’d never let go awry. Sometimes I consider the idea that this entire last year has all just been an incredibly long nightmare that I will wake up from someday. That would be the best case scenario. Starting from pre-production, this project has been the single hardest thing I have done in my fifteen years of existence.
This may seem odd: My dream since age six has been to make movies. Now I am fifteen. I have a whole body of talented individuals supporting me, and I am bringing a screenplay that has all of my favorite filmmaking concepts to life. From the outside, this looks like a kid’s dream come true. From the inside, this feels like a catastrophe.
I am not angry, just very afraid. I feel like the disguise has been ripped away, and I am the phoney, wanna-be, mediocre director I have always feared I would become. It’s funny how quickly your insecurities take hold when things begin to turn south. I fear making films that are mediocre in every sense of the word. That is what I am afraid of with Fugue. Two days into shooting, I already feel like I have failed; and I still have six more days to go.
Because of the time we were losing to gear failure and rehearsals that were taking longer than planned, we wrapped with only getting two of three scenes in the can. Additionally, the last scene of the day was missing a majority of the coverage I had planned to get.
Despite what directing looks like in all of the behind the scenes featurettes, this is what directing is really like:
Turning your six essential shots into three.
This lack of coverage has put us into some really tight corners in post-production. Just cutting a film is a challenge of its own, but trying to match coverage is where the limitations come into play.
On Fugue, every single scene had a challenge with matching coverage from one shot to the next shot, and it was even more difficult with reverse shots. I have learned an insane amount about blocking having to write, direct, and edit Fugue. There’s a Shane’s Inner Circle article I’ve since found that I wish I had read before shooting Fugue. The article is called, Blocking and Matching Coverage and it has some invaluable advice on shooting and blocking.
The RED is mounted on a Dana Dolly for a wide shot that tracks with the actors. Director of Photography, Austin McCardie, is currently swapping RED MAGS while Key Grip, Sean East, is continuing to prep the Dana Dolly.
Every day forward, I felt like I was on the brink of a panic attack. Twelve thousand dollars of someone else’s money was on the line, almost a hundred people were donating entire days, and I had made this film on the promise of a vision that I was failing to deliver. Above all of that, I set out to make a movie that expressed the complexity, maturity, and excellence of my capabilities as a filmmaker. But, I felt this vision was getting muddled within the battle for just making our days.
I could never have imagined how exhausting directing would be. The endless questions, the growing insecurity, and the considerable commitment is overwhelming. This entire experience has taught me an incredible amount of lessons and has undoubtedly made me reconsider what it really takes to chase your dreams.
Almost every single one of our problems on Fugue spawned from pre-production. For one, I probably mis-cast a couple of the roles in my film. Due to a rushed casting process, the decisions I made were not in the greatest confidence. I was also incredibly new to casting at the time and felt very uncomfortable during the audition process.
I wish I had spent a lot more time finding the right cast and had been a little more patient. They say half of your job as a director is gathering the right cast, and I wholeheartedly agree. The actors I did cast correctly made my life a dream. It was fun to grow a relationship with them and be their biggest cheerleader. But actors can already be incredibly insecure; and when you can’t help reinforce a sense of confidence in their performance, everything starts to crumble.
There was also a handful of actors that came to set without their lines memorized, and this really threw things for a loop. If your actors come to set unprepared, there is nothing you or your crew can do to fix this other than cutting down the scene. While it is smart to come up with a Plan B for a scene in case an actor comes to set unprepared, you shouldn’t have to change entire scenes because of someone else’s mistake – which is another reason why casting is crucial.
On the topic of actors, I really enjoy the rehearsal process. Rehearsing isn’t for everybody, but it makes life a lot easier during production because it gives you a chance to fail without any repercussions. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to rehearse all of the scenes that I wanted to, and I could definitely tell during production. The scenes we did rehearse went a thousand times smoother, and I felt more comfortable working with the actors because the intentions of the scene were already spelled out before we arrived on set.
Locations were another area that really went wrong on Fugue. Locations should be one of the first things you take care of during pre-production. Unfortunately, on Fugue, locking our locations took way longer than anticipated, and this caused us major issues with two locations in particular. The first location I had to cut, along with the scene, because we couldn’t find a proper street to execute my vision appropriately. This scene interfered with the entire plot, which also forced me to do a last minute rewrite on the script that changed the flow of the story entirely.
This was a major lesson on two levels. Firstly, we should’ve been looking for this location from day one. And lastly, as a director you have to know the art of compromise.
There will be moments when your vision doesn’t match the practicality of what you can afford, and you have to decide if you are okay with this or if you are going to have to take a different path. For me, the streets that were available to us interfered with the integrity of my vision, so I decided that we needed to figure out an alternate route for the story instead.
For our gas station location, I had a variety of options towards the middle of pre-production. But as we were nearing our shoot date and climbing the corporate ladder to lock our gas station, we got a no. And then the next gas station turned us down. Ultimately, every single gas station we had on our list, even the ones that I had marked as “backup” turned us down. And this was even after the screenplay was rewritten, which lessened the importance of the location, making me even more willing to go with a “backup” option.
This left us scrambling last minute to find any location we could find. In the end, we were left with two choices. There was a local liquor store we found, but we’d be forced to re-adjust our entire schedule. Or, we had a connection to a privately owned gas station, but this gas station was going to add at least an extra hour of travel time for the majority of our crew. Additionally, this gas station was right beside a main highway, which made it incredibly noisy.
If we had started location scouting earlier, we would’ve been presented with this issue earlier and probably could’ve handled it with a lot more care and patience. But, that is one of the issues you run into when you have volunteers donating their time. Location scouts happen around their schedule and not yours. The next time around, I will certainly be more conscious of how we set shoot dates and schedule for pre-production in response to everyone else’s schedules. You have to be very aware of how long things take and how you can realistically make that work with people who are not getting paid.
Commercial Cinematography Series (Pre-Production) is another great recommendation I would make for directors starting to plan their films. The process discussed is very well-rounded and smart. And I would completely agree that communication is the key to success. It’s important for everyone to be on the same page and for you to know exactly what you want and how to communicate that.
We also had some mis-steps with gear on Fugue. Because of the limited budget, we had to forgo much of the tech rehearsal that is spent on larger films, but we were still renting some major pieces of equipment. We got all of our gear a day early to make sure everything was working properly. From early on, I knew I wanted to shoot Fugue on anamorphic lenses. I am a huge fan of the format, and it felt perfect for the story. I picked out a set of Lomo, square front, anamorphic lenses that consisted of a 35mm, 50mm, and an 80mm.
But I saw very quickly that I was going to have to readjust some shots to fit in the minimum focus distance of our lens set. So, for our first day of shooting, I changed our original wide shot to a medium, and I came up with a completely different wide shot. And then, I fell in love with the look and feel of these lenses all over again during the shoot. So, despite their limitations, at some point, you have to just give up and let the lenses take you on a journey. However, with the experience I have now, I would be a lot more comprehensive when investigating the lenses.
This brings us to another mistake that was made. One of the most important pieces of equipment we rented was a Steadicam. Despite getting it in a day early, my DP felt comfortable enough to forgo testing it and instead spent time testing the lenses. But the very next day, when we went to set it up for our first shot, we discovered it had the wrong battery mount. This left us without a Steadicam on a shoot that was planned to have a majority of Steadicam work.
Gaffer, Curtis McCardie, spots Austin as he operates the Steadicam. Location Sound Mixer, Phillip McCardie, can be seen operating the boom right of Steadicam. Both Scott Michael Dunn and Richard Louis Ulrich are performing the scene in front of the front door to the convenience store.
I immediately reached out to some local filmmakers and found a set of Anton Bauer batteries we could borrow for a couple of days, but after that, we’d have to rent batteries for the rest of the shoot. And days that we didn’t have the batteries, we had to completely rethink our shot list. So, if I had asked the right questions in pre-production, and we had tested the piece of equipment when it had arrived, we would not have run into this issue.
Early on in the project, I knew communication was a huge asset to making this film work. But, even with the awareness I had, there were still several issues during casting and gathering wardrobe that had to do with communication. In one instance during casting, I decided to cast someone in a principal that had already been asked to be an extra. This was resolved quickly with an apology and he was very professional about the matter.
Also, a couple communication malfunctions were due to scheduling conflicts with our wardrobe department, which required a producer to step in and help. This led to actors being contacted late in the game, which put us in a time crunch. Additionally, a couple of cast members were told contradictory information from both the producer and wardrobe supervisor, which led to confusion. Ultimately, we had to regroup to make sure that everyone was on the same page and our cast was gathering the correct wardrobe.
On this note, it is also important to understand the different levels of experience you will be working with in your cast and crew. If we could do this project again, we would probably have a meeting to solely cover film set basics with some of the greener crew members.
One of the ways communication can go wrong is with your method of communication. Using software for this is very smart for pre-production. It helps to keep documents organized, tasks laid out, and gives everyone a single means of communicating with each other. Regrettably, everyone on the crew, including me, despised the piece of software we were using to organize and communicate amongst the team. It was called Teamwork. Everyone felt the interface was confusing, inefficient, and made communication harder. If I could do it again, I would definitely find a better piece of software, such as Studio Binder, and use the knowledge I now have to establish better communication methods amongst the crew.
As I said, I do very much believe that planning is the most important part of the filmmaking process. With that said, production is an entirely different animal. It is an overwhelming and exhausting process. There are definitely some strong pieces of advice I can pass on from my experience directing Fugue.
For one, you need to be absolutely confident in yourself and be courageous. Insecurity is the default position when chasing wild ambitions, but in order to make it to the end, you must embrace the risks. The moments I second guessed myself on Fugue are the moments I regret the most when I look back.
When someone challenges your vision, it’s important to set aside your insecurity and listen to what they are really saying and address it in service to the material. There were a lot of decisions I made on Fugue that I regretted because I didn’t stand up for myself and the ultimate vision.
When you are directing, you have to remember that you are the boss. As scary as it is, sometimes you have to make decisions that no one will agree with and you need to make peace with that. You will be asked a million questions a day, and it’s important that you answer them on the spot without taking five minutes to explore your insecurities as a leader. The mentality you need to have is that your decision as the director is the right decision, even if it’s the wrong one. No matter how things turn out in the end, beating yourself up helps absolutely no one. Learn your lessons, learn them quickly, and move on.
Left: On set, day 3, in a hospital room. Director Gabe Sheets describing the next shot to the rest of the crew. Right: On set, day 5, in downtown St. Louis. Director of Photography, Austin McCardie, 1st Assistant Director, Wyatt Weed, and Director, Gabe Sheets, discuss one of the most pivotal scenes of the entire film.
Perseverance is something else you must keep contained within yourself. The saying goes that directing is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There are highs and lows to production. On Fugue, I feel like all of the exhaustion and failure wore on me to a point where part of myself gave up on the idea of the piece turning out to be any good. So I focused more on surviving through each day instead of making the best possible short that I could.
In editing Fugue, I can see so many missed opportunities where I wished I had pushed harder. Granted, some of these instances have valid reasoning, but other shortcomings on Fugue have no excuses. No matter how horrible a film you think you might be making, I feel it’s important to continue to push to make it better. Fugue has taught me that a bad day is not a bad film. There are re-shoots, inserts, pickups, and the editing room that are there to help pick up where you left off. And at the end of the day, it probably isn’t as bad as you think.
Possibly the best advice I could give other prospective directors is to keep your eye on the ball. Through all of the chaos on set, your focus must remain on what is happening within your frame and how that is affecting the rest of your piece. You also have to remind yourself how your decisions are affecting your ultimate goal. If you stay focused on the end goal, everything else will fall into place. And I don’t just mean staying focused on the vision. You have to stay focused on the endgame of the film itself.
The goal with Fugue was to make an impressive and ambitious short crime drama that was meant to show my potential as a filmmaker. But you can often lose sight of this when you are in the heat of battle. So, as much as I was pessimistic on set after all of the trials and tribulations, looking back on this experience now with the end goal in mind, I feel much more optimistic. Had I kept that in mind throughout the entirety of the shoot, I might’ve directed with a different attitude.
There are also moments on projects like this, with a very tight schedule and limited budget, that you’ll have to evaluate the importance of a scene as compared to the entirety of the project. On Fugue, there were scenes that I decided to take more time on, but this gave us much less time on other scenes later in the day. It’s important to understand this ripple effect and to be methodical about it.
Directing Fugue was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Most of the time, I just wanted to collapse into the fetal position and just throw in the towel. Most days ended with me feeling like I had to give up my entire vision as a filmmaker to wrap. Many times I would think to myself, is it worth it to be a filmmaker if in return I have to sacrifice my artistic integrity? These are the types of thoughts I fought the entire time I made Fugue. These are the types of questions you will ask yourself as a director. These were the thoughts that were coming to me in that bathroom on Day 2 of production. And after splashing water in my face and taking a second to catch my breath, I walked back to set.