Life for anyone working in film production is going to be crazy. It’s long days. It’s a lot of movement. It’s a lot of stress. And it’s a lot of things out of your control. If you’re thinking about doing a self-financed production, I wan to give you an idea of what a couple days into the production looks like.
I was working on Day Two’s call sheet and adjusted the shooting schedule until around 1:00 AM the night before. I sent that out to cast and crew in an email asking if they had any food requests since I’d be running to the Walmart in town. More on that in a second. I fell asleep around 2:30 or 3:00 AM. I had continuous nightmares of all the mistakes from the day before and kept waking up thinking everyone was waiting for me to say, “Action.”I woke up around 6:45 AM and had a few responses to the food request email. I got ready to head down to the store but my car was pinned in by a few other cars. The crew of eight people slept in a three-bedroom house. We had people in beds, on couches, and on air mattresses. It took me close to thirty minutes of quietly searching to find the keys of an SUV that wasn’t blocked in.
As I mentioned, the house is in the middle of nowhere. Like off-the-grid, dirt road, nowhere. The drive back into town, Twenty-Nine Palms I think, was around 25 minutes. I got to this Walmart, which was seriously amazing. Walmarts in the city are like crowded Targets, but Walmarts out in rural areas are like space stations. I don’t know what this has to do with film production but I can’t say enough good things about the Twenty Nine Palms Walmart.In a similar vein as the AD, when you don’t hire someone to handle craft services, you are in charge of craft services. I rarely eat anything on a film set, so me being in charge of what everyone else has available to eat is not a good fit. You’re also keenly aware of dietary restrictions, and anyone who is a vegetarian or vegan. Even on a small shoot like this, we had two vegetarians, a vegan, and a combination of people who were allergic to gluten, soy, dairy, and sesame. You’re responsible with providing them something to eat that isn’t going to kill them.
Quick note if you don’t know this, but vegetarians and vegans want actual full meals for themselves. They don’t want to simply pull things off of the meals other people are eating. I’ve seen film sets where they have been asked to do so and it’s not good for morale.
It took me around forty minutes to get everything from the store, including a few things for production design like batteries and light bulbs. At checkout, I would always buy one of those Starbucks Double Shot Espressos or the biggest Red Bull they sold. I knew it would lead to an eventual crash but I needed that initial burst of energy to start the day.
When you do a single location thing like this that has cast or crew crashing at the house, you also need to provide them with breakfast and dinner. When I got back to the house, everyone else was starting to wake up and eat around 9:00 AM – 9:30 AM.Since call time was going to be noon that day, I started having meetings with the other producer two hours out or so. We reviewed the day, went over the order of scenes, understanding where we were going to be, what we were going to be doing, what sets needed to be dressed, which props needed to be ready and really having all the details in our head before everything started. As you can imagine, that meeting can take a while.
As the rest of the crew begins their day, you’re inevitably going to get people that aren’t happy with the food selection you’ve purchased. You’re going to get passive aggressive comments or outright complaints. Again, as a producer, I would love to have the resources for a customized spread for each person, but you can’t spend money you don’t have.
As you get closer to the call time, you start getting everyone aware, just letting them know the day is starting soon. We met and reviewed the day first with the camera department, then the sound department, then PA’s and just getting it in everyone’s head what the day was going to look like.The cast came from a hotel in town this time so everyone is there right on time. After the meetings with the crew, they were up and ready to shoot as soon as the cast was. We saw a huge improvement in readiness from the first day and got our first shot up in twenty-nine minutes as opposed to the hundred and five minutes of the day before.
At call time, I had already been awake for over five hours. Everything sort of ceases to exist once you start shooting. It is no longer an existence of time and space but instead, one of shots, setups, takes, scene numbers, checking thing off a list, and moving from one location to the next. Truly, time seems to progress differently than it did before.
Inevitably, you reach a point in the day where you have this reckless optimism. You’re still several hours from lunch, you see how much you’ve already gotten done, and you ride this little high of “Wow, we’re moving really quickly. We’re gonna make it no problem.” That feeling always ends up evaporating because you always end up racing to get something in before lunch. But lunch was at 6:00 PM that day and we were able to make it.The cast was still feeling those hot tub takes from last night but the male lead, who is in the majority of scenes we shot that day, has a horrible cold. Having the job of an actor, where you are expected to be funny or happy or sad or stressed, regardless of how you are actually feeling, becomes appreciably more difficult when you are ill. With a typical job, when you’re not feeling well, you can either call sick or find a way to get through the day and go home to get some rest. For an actor, just because you’re sick doesn’t mean your character is. You still have to be on your feet and push through a twelve-hour day and be called to action nonstop. And seeing all of them fight through that makes you so appreciative as a director and producer.
During the lunch break, we restructured the shooting schedule for the night time. The male lead was doing a great job but we wanted to wrap him out a little early if we could so he could go get some rest. We had a much better pace going on Day Two and figured we could wrap around 11:30 PM – 11:45 PM.The biggest problem for me then wasn’t the lack of time but the sudden emergence of an ankle injury. I always do a long distance run a few days a week, but in the build-up to the production, I started a feeling a pain in my left leg—above the ankle and more in the lower half of the calf. I switched to swimming to avoid putting pressure on it and it had been doing better.
But with waking up when I did, I had been on my feet for over twelve hours at that point and the pain had returned. It hurt to put weight on it. When I flexed it, I could feel a bunch of fluid moving through the bottom of my leg, which is not normal. With that work rate, I was already running around quite a bit and the cast and crew were starting to see me as the manic hobbled figure. When the person in charge seems like they are panicking, it starts to trickle to everybody else, which is something we really needed to avoid.
Nonetheless, we made our day and wrapped around 11:45 PM as planned. After a brief tear down, I caught up with the camera department and sound department, saw how they were holding up, and addressed any issues they were having that could be fixed moving forward.I met with the other producer, reviewed the scenes we got done on Day Two. We started talking about Day Three. We had a lot of day exterior shots for the next day and needed to strategize the most efficient way to get the takes in the sunlight. We wanted to give the male lead a later call time if we could. After getting a schedule that made sense, we built the shooting schedule and a new call sheet. Putting it together and sending it out to everyone took a little over an hour.
Like the night before, I went to bed between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. Doing the math, it was around a nineteen-hour day all told. Nineteen hours of constant movement, management, and tasks. In a normal world, I would have been watching dailies, but we just weren’t set up for that. The other producer slept on an air mattress with his laptop on the ground, next to his face, and imported footage all night.
This is the life we have cut out for ourselves. You feel the weight of all those people you didn’t hire: Craft Services, a DIT, an AD, a bigger camera department, etc. But all of those people are going to cost more money. More money means a bigger budget and a bigger budget would have meant we couldn’t make this film. I definitely felt exhausted and missed my wife, my home and my bed, but somehow we were halfway done with this thing. And, incredibly, we got so much better from Day One to Day Two. We hoped we could get even better from Day Two to Day Three.
Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.
Photo credit: Jon Lora