It’s mid-January, just a day before the opening of the Sundance Film Festival, and here in the Northeast, the indie movie business is revving up again. I have to smile at the unfailing drive of filmmakers to keep making movies regardless—or because—of the world around them. Movies live in a parallel universe, where things happen according to a set of rules that are created spontaneously and independently of any reality, but moviemakers have to live in this world. And, they are apparently finding funds, because (as a frequent indie crew member) I’m getting calls about new productions that are ready to start soon.
Filmmakers are the hopeful idiots of the world, ready to create what is essentially a digital dream for consumption…and nothing stops that creative leap. Not a housing crisis, or a crashed economy, not a war, and not even a hurricane.
Last summer I worked on the locations crew of a film production, Hello I Must Be Going, that was shooting on the East Coast when Hurricane Irene made her way to shore. (For those of you who don’t live here, that storm caused an estimated $7 billion in damage, killed 28 people, and wreaked havoc up and down 10 states).
The storm hit on Saturday, our biggest shooting day, and we were forced to shut down for the weekend, losing locations we had already secured. Throughout the next few days, most of the state was still on emergency status (meaning only emergency vehicles allowed on the roads), with downed trees blocking roads, flooding throughout the region, and whole towns closed for business.
And what were we doing? Furiously emailing and holding conference calls…Rearranging our shooting schedule to use the available talent we had staying in local hotels in the scenes we needed before they were scheduled to fly out. I was calling new locations as the writer was writing new scenes and the director was rethinking the look of the film and the producers were reconnoitering on how to keep the production floating along the streams of wreckage around a state that was still largely shut down.
We returned to a previous location we had used the week before, only now we had lost the whole basement to water, and the entire production space had to be holed up in one side of a garage while the caterer used the other. We sat in our cars with our laptops, we pulled trucks through mud puddles around giant tree branches, we parked cars in soggy fields, and we ate at tables crunched into tight, still-dry spaces. And nobody complained. Not the talent, and not the crew, who were putting in 16 hour days on what was turning into a somewhat miserable shooting experience due to weather.
And on Tuesday after the hurricane, we were back to shooting, rescheduling Wednesday on the fly. And on Wednesday, we worked on Thursday. It was our last week, and every day was a crapshoot—but we made it. It was truly a kind of Hell I would not want to cross through again, but we did make it. Me and 50 or 60 people who had been total strangers just one month before.
That is what amazes me about movie crews. They unite under a common notion that the “show must go on.” They don’t know each other personally, and there is little time to really share much about your life back home. You don’t know who has kids or who’s getting married, or even where they come from. You come into someone’s life for 3 or 4 weeks, and the whole of every day is about the movie, the current shot, and making the day.
Movie people have a gift for staying on task. It’s how movies get made. You get up in the dark and show up in a parking lot before the sun is up for a breakfast burrito, and you stay on your feet for another 15 or so hours before you can drag yourself back home or to a local hotel for about 5 hours sleep before starting again tomorrow. You do it day after day, counting down the days, just like every other member of the crew. And each day, we show all up, until the movie’s done.
I know of no other field in the arts that comes close to the level of abuse a movie shoot lauds on its crew. Artists struggle for their art, but they don’t stand out in the rain for 6 hours in the middle of the night, directing traffic so it doesn’t cut through the shot. Like sane people, they would go home.
But here’s a lesson artists and writers can learn from movie crews: blind attention to getting the job done. It’s not your movie, or your idea, but you still give your full attention to your piece, and so does everyone else. There’s no time for second-guessing whether the project will turn out well, or whether you should have gone in a different direction. And it’s inconceivable to call in sick—you can pretty much only call in dead. There’s only the shot ahead, and the one ahead of that.
When you think of it, it’s a miracle there are films worth watching on the screen. It’s one of those weird things in life that often works, sometimes well, and on occasion, it works spectacularly. And maybe that’s why we do it.
In the fine arts, the artist focuses on executing their own vision, but in the performing arts you are but a tiny piece of the whole that must come together to form the director’s vision. On various mornings in those wee hours, we would stand around an ask ourselves why we were still there, showing up for one more very long day on a film that might never even make it to screens. But we don’t wait for the answer, because we all know what it is…the show must go on, and in a minute (tiny) way, each one of us knows we are making it happen.
There’s a legacy effect to working in the movies, where you are part of the experience behind the film, and no matter how miserable it gets, it’s still hard to walk away from. As the saying goes, “what, and give up show biz?”
I’m pleased to see that one of the films I had a small part in making is showing at Sundance this week. I have no idea how the film came together in post-production, but I trust–because of the work ethic we brought during the production–that it turned out well. I’d love to see it come to theatres. My congrats to the director, the writer, the actors, the producers, and of course, the crew!
© 2012 Arts Enclave.