Stories on Set: A Visit to the U.K., Part I
by Marieta Caballero
This is the story of what happened when I traveled to another country to shoot a short film for eight days with total strangers I’d met over the internet. Here’s my takeaway: “kids, don’t do this at home. “
Because I didn’t go to film school or study anything related to filmmaking, I’ve often found myself putting extra effort into finding projects, resources, and a community of filmmakers with whom to work. At first it was hard, but as I’ve come to know many creators in Madrid (where I’m from) and across the globe over the years, it’s become increasingly easy. Usually, I either become involved in my friends’ projects or someone recommends me for a position on set, but this time it was totally different process to led me to a project.
One day while browsing Twitter, an account promoting a short film project followed me. I took a look at it. It was a student film project from the U.K. which depicted a coming of age story. The producers were preparing a crowdfunding to pay for the costs. It caught my eye, and since I had experience with crowdfunding strategies, I messaged them asking to know more about the project and to offer my help. Luckily, someone replied.
Whoever was typing behind the screen told me that they were in the pre-production stage, still building the team. He or she asked me what I could do. I said I was a director and a screenwriter, but that I also had experience with being a script supervisor on set. I asked to read the script and the director sent it to me via email, requesting feedback. I let her know that the story resonated with me and replied with some comments. About a month later, the director asked me whether I still wanted to be script supervisor for her film. I was very excited about this, but I wasn’t incredibly optimistic it would work out.
Since I was coming from Spain, I would need a place to stay or I wouldn’t be able to afford it. She told me that this wouldn’t be a problem and offered that I stay at her house. At this point, I want to remind you that I didn’t know this person and all of the contact I’d had with her were a couple of emails, Twitter, and the crowdfunding site of the project. At the same time, she seemed normal and everything seemed to be in order. The college she went to existed, and there was even another Spanish girl on the team of the project who I contacted and who seemed to be really nice. Eventually I thought: “If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.” Actually, this is a very poor argument, but it’s what pushed me to say yes and to join the project. (Don’t do this at home, kids.)
Months went by and shooting dates were established. Apparently, despite it being a short film, eight days of shooting were planned. Since they weren’t consecutive, I would have to be in the U.K. for two weeks. It would be the longest shoot I’d been in until then. When I told some of my friends, they looked at me funny as if they didn’t understand what would motivate me to take such risk, especially for an unpaid job. I had also procrastinated telling my parents about it—I knew they wouldn’t like the idea and they would try to dissuade me from it. Side note: I wasn’t wrong.
Before I took off, my mother told me to call her right the moment I got there. Although London is only two hours away from Madrid, if you’re flying on a budget, you will probably not land in Heathrow, but either in Gatwick or Stansted, both airports that are quite far from the city. From there, I would catch a bus to London. The landscape went by showing me the typical British countryside under an overcast sky until we got to the core of the city. From there, I could see the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the skyscrapers of the Financial District, and eventually Waterloo Station. I felt as though I was in a movie. From there, I took a train. As marveled as I had been with London, the sun was setting and I couldn’t see anything but my reflection on the train’s window. It was there, with the rumble of the train and the fading lights, where my thoughts began to wander. I started to picture every worst case scenario of what could happen: “Would I become kidnapped?” “Would the whole short film project be a cover for a human trafficking mafia?” I knew no one there. If something were to happen to me, it seems highly unlikely that anyone would ever find out.
The plan was to meet the director at the station. When I got off the train, she was waiting for me in the parking lot, and we went to her house together. Luckily, she was who she said she was—a sweet host who insisted on me sleeping in her bed and her taking the couch. In the living room of her apartment, the floor was crowded with film equipment. The adventure had just begun.
The first day went by fast. I met the rest of the crew, and I learnt that some of them weren’t students, so I wasn’t the only new one there. I thought everyone seemed very nice and professional. The second day was an exterior shoot and we went up to the top of a hill to a prairie with a beautiful view of a town. It was winter and rainy, and most of the crew got their feet soaked pretty quickly, even though we had umbrellas. I thought my boots were waterproof, but after being in the rain for a several hours my feet got soaked as well. It was so cold that I couldn’t write down my script notes, so I recorded them on my phone to write them down later. I don’t know how the actors made it through—they had to sit on a wet bench and the female character had to wear a skirt. The only good thing about the weather was that the light scarcely changed, so we had a lot of time to shoot. At some point, I lost track of time and looked at my watch. It was 4pm and we still hadn’t eaten. The truth is it was so cold that I wasn’t hungry, but we had been shooting under the rain for 5 hours.
On the third day, we had a break. I really appreciated the rest, sleeping in, and getting to know the area I was staying at. It was a small college town full of young people. I even got to attend one of the classes that my new Spanish friend was taking. It was fun, but the next day there would be more work. In fact, the next day would be special because we were going to have more lighting equipment available for the DoP (Director of Photography) and her team to use. There was still a little detail to arrange that the producer hadn’t thought about before we could use the lights: The director, with part of the money from the crowdfunding and part from fundraising events that she put together, managed to scrape enough to rent these lights from a studio-house in London. The producer’s job was to find transportation to bring the lights from the city one hour away to the set, but she hadn’t done it and had run out of ideas to solve the problem. The director was left alone to solve the mess. Eventually, the AD (Assistant Director), who had a car, offered to wake up at 5am, go to London, and come back to set before 7am. After it, he would go back to sleep immediately because he had to work at another shoot in the evening, and I was asked to substitute him for the day, which I happily did.
We woke up at 7am and loaded the cars with the equipment. Each day, early in the morning and in the evening after the shoot, we would load the whole equipment and unload it, in a collective effort of generally four people. We had a lot of it. As I previously said, storing it overnight took the whole living room. The heaviest piece we had was a huge light that came with a 30-kilo (286 pounds) stand, but there were many other heavy items such as two energy power boxes for the lights, cables, light stands, light bouncers and diffusers, the camera box, the lenses box, a tripod and camera accessories, the clapboard and art props. Obviously not everything fit neither in one trunk nor in one car, so we sometimes had to do more than one ride to the location to bring everything and transport the crew. In my opinion, that was one of the most tiresome parts of the shoot, because it had to be done every single day as we could never leave things on set.
What I couldn’t imagine was what was going to happen to us that day, the day when the AD brought the lights.
Don’t forget to check back in next Friday to read the second installment of Marieta’s adventures. ICYMI: Last week, Marieta wrote about her experience working with extras on set. You can read it here.
— Marieta Caballero is a film director, writer, and producer who was born and raised in Madrid, Spain. For the past six years, she’s been exploring the world of filmmaking. She is currently based in Madrid working at her own production company. (www.talkoofilms.com)