Stories on Set: A Disastrous First Experience
by Marieta Caballero
I was 17 when I wrote and directed my first short film. I had written many other stories previously, but it had been hard for me to find a film crew until then, so all of the stories had remained on paper. My very literal title for this piece was “Discover Your Place in the World.” It was a coming of age story told in the terms of magical realism in which an indecisive 17 year old struggles to choose what studies to pursue.
At the time, I was going through a similar situation, peer pressured by my parents, family, and friends to make up my mind about what to study. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but people around me didn’t consider it to be a real option, nor a real job. Unlike in the United States, where you don’t necessarily have to declare your major in college until your sophomore year, students in Spain are required to choose between pursuing sciences or humanities (or arts, but most people don’t consider it to be a “real” option) at age 15. At 17, college students are supposed to commit to an enclosed college program where they have to define your major from day one. In these programs, students scarcely have electives, and everyone takes practically the same classes. It is a very difficult process to switch your major without losing all your progress. It’s very stressful because many times students don’t have the resources to make an informed decision about their career path. Even if there is a degree that interests us, sometimes it is an unattainable option due to large demand for certain programs. Although college is essentially free and we don’t have the burdens of student debt, in my case, filmmaking wasn’t offered at any public institution. There is a similar degree, called Audiovisual Communication and Media Studies, but it isn’t film school. I didn’t have the support of my family in pursuing my vocation, because they didn’t take my interest seriously. In looking back, I see my short film as a reflection of the way I was feeling: very alone and unsure. My goal was to apply to film schools in the United States, earn a scholarship, and study film production. In order to do so, I needed to finish my short film to use it as my portfolio in my college applications.
After passing the Selectividad (the Spanish standardized test, which proves difficult because if you fail (or don’t achieve the desired score), you must wait another year to retake it), I began preparing the production. I was both producer and director. That was my first big mistake, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t have any other options anyway, as I didn’t know any producers. On my own, I secured 5 different locations, cast many young and adult actors, and searched for equipment, all with no budget. I asked my great-aunt, whose living room was very much the aesthetics I sought, if my friends and I could shoot at her house and she agreed.
Since it was summer, half of the crew I used to shoot with was traveling, leaving me to organize everything by myself. A friend, who is a Director of Photography today, was kind enough to lend me his lights. They were three small torches, but they were very heavy and came with large stands. The first day of shooting, I grabbed the huge suitcase of lights, and hopped on a bus to my great-aunt’s early in the morning to prepare everything before everyone else arrived on set. I wasn’t able to bring lunch with me, because the suitcase and the other props already took both of my hands. I decided to dump 1 kilo of rice into the suitcase. With that, I thought I could feed everyone easily.
I hopped off the bus and dragged the suitcase across the early morning Madrid streets until I got to the location. My great-aunt opened the door and I began to build the camera and light set. My crew began to arrive. My great-aunt saw what we were doing and she was stunned. She wasn’t expecting all these people and equipment all over her place when I asked her to shoot at her house. Then she asked me when we would be finished shooting. “10pm,” I said and her eyes grew wider. She hadn’t realized how serious I was about the production. “But aren’t you going to eat?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. As I took out the bag of rice, I noticed the bag had ripped and the rice was beginning to spill out all over the floor. It was clear my lunch plan had failed. Luckily, my great-aunt saved the day offering to buy our lunch at a nearby restaurant.
Throughout the day, the shooting was slow. Some of the crew was distracted, bored and failed to contribute. To make matters worse, the microphone cable bailed out on us. We had to attach it directly to the camera, trying our best not to move it so we didn’t compromise the sound. The next day, I went to buy a new cable, but for reason that I still don’t understand, the new cable worked as an antenna, and while recording, it would also simultaneously record radio emissions from a nearby station.
During the next days of shooting, things didn’t improve—one of our main actresses forgot her shirt, which was needed to maintain the continuity among the rest of the scenes. She went back home to get it, and while away messaged me that she suddenly had to travel to another city that was four hours away—which I was convinced was an excuse to get out of the shoot.
I was exhausted by the final day of shooting. We had been shooting for five days, with only one day in between to rest, which I was grateful for so I could further prepare and fix the sound issue. I was stressed by the problems that we were finding along the way, one being the attitudes of some of the crew members. At our final location, after two hours, we still hadn’t shot anything. At one point, we were shooting a birthday surprise scene, and it was hard to keep the candles lit as it was taking forever for us to focus and the cake was starting to melt. It was a disaster and all I wanted to do was cry. I felt powerless because I was putting so much effort into this film, yet no one else seemed to care about it. I began to question if it was worth making in the first place. I went outside and wept. Two of my friends came to talk to me and I explained to them that I felt like I couldn’t do it. They cheered me up and convinced me to keep going, so I went back inside to finish shooting. We managed to film some blurred shots as the cake melted into a viscous, chocolaty mass. Finally, the shoot was over and no matter how cliché this may sound, I wondered whether this was actually my passion after how hard it had all been.
Then came post production. In the final cut, you will not find the birthday scenes. When editing, I realized that whoever had done sound during that scene had plugged the microphones in the headphones slot and vice versa. I was wearing the headphones during the shooting of that sequence, but as there was a lot of singing and noise, and in the middle of the stress, I hadn’t noticed the lack of sound. What was certain was that we had recorded the whole scene without the audio. Out of the original 20 pages of screenplay, only about 12 are on the final cut. I had to also take out many of the scenes with the actress who quit because they no longer made sense to the story.
When I was editing, I showed my aunt a preview. Her comment was “it does look like an actual film!” expressing how surprised she was by my editing. I didn’t express it, but I felt very satisfied in that moment. I think I proved something to her that she didn’t think I was capable of. Even I considered it to be a miracle, but at least it was finished. Now I had something to show, and people could start taking me seriously.
Although I have participated in many projects since this very first one, I’m very proud of “Discover Your Place in the World” because I finished it despite the struggle. Finishing it was a huge feat already. I think it’s very important not to abandon your projects, but rather complete them, no matter how poor you believe them to be. In my opinion, perfectionism is a virtue until too much of it makes it a flaw. If there is a project you no longer feel motivated to make, find a way to give it its own ending, even if it ends up being one that was unplanned. I believe this to be true for two reasons; first, because it is better to have something bad to show than to have nothing at all; and second, as respect to your cast and crew for their work.
From then on, I have been involved as a producer and writer-director in many short films. In many of them, I’ve lived adventures, jumped through hurdles, met incredibly talented and passionate people, and have found an amazing crew with whom I continue to work with today. In this column, I am looking forward to sharing my experiences and stories to other fellow creators who are putting all their effort and talent into their craft. In the end, I didn’t go to film school, nor to college in the United States, but I never gave up pursuing my passion on my own. Today, I feel successful because I’m starting to get paid for filmmaking. I have also enlarged my community of filmmakers in Spain, and have worked along incredible teams ranging from youtubers to large corporations. Most importantly, through filmmaking, I believe I have found my place in the world.