Stories on Set: A Visit to the U.K., Part II
by Marieta Caballero
(This is the second installment of a two-part story by Marieta Caballero on her journey to England for a film shoot. Click here to read the first part of her story.)
After the two-hour early morning excursion from the town to London and back, the meeting point was location—an apartment building complex. We were shooting a scene in which a man and a teen wake up in his apartment the night after a party. Apparently the location manager found the place through a friend who was away at a wedding that weekend. The GPS placed it in the middle of a road where there was a mall, a parking lot, and nothing else. We gathered in the parking lot to figure out what to do.
After a while, the location manager arrived and we found out that there was a backdoor outside the mall through which one could access the apartment complex. With that, we began to unload the heavy equipment, teaming up as a chain so two people could take things out of trunk, another two would place the boxes at the door, and two people would load and unload the elevator. It took us a very long time.
Even before getting into the location, we were already an hour and a half behind schedule. To our surprise, when we had carried most of the stuff up the elevator, that wasn’t the end of the journey. Instead, the apartment was located in another building bridged by a patio—it didn’t have an elevator, but rather two blocks of stairs. As we brought the least heavy equipment into the apartment, we realized that the so-called “apartment” was simply a room with a bathroom and a tiny kitchen and that all of the equipment that we were bringing up wouldn’t even fit inside. In fact, I was actually surprised that there was enough distance to accommodate a decent camera angle for the takes. But after all, when I had asked for the planning of the takes so that I could take better continuity notes, I’d been told that there were none, and that it would be the first time for the director and director of photography (DoP) to see the location. They would improvise their way through. Before the director got there, I told the team, who was still unloading the elevator, that we couldn’t bring the equipment in. We literally could not fit in the 96 square-foot room. In fact, the only ones going into the room would be the actors, the DoP (who would be operating the camera), the director, and one of the sound guys. I would have to rely on the director’s eyes to take my notes, and as of the equipment, the only option would be to leave it in the hallway in the most organized way possible.
After another half an hour of “working out,” a.k.a. bringing stuff up the stairs, the team started to wear out. The actors got their costumes on (or rather took their clothes off to be in their underwear) and began rehearsing the scene. Meanwhile, the rest of us kept carrying the equipment upstairs until I was told that a doorman warned us that we had to move our belongings to avoid blocking the emergency exits in the corridor. To comply with it, we began carrying part of the equipment back down to the patio, since the hallway was already full. By now, the team was completely burnt out.
There was no planning, the location didn’t meet our expectations, and most of us were sitting around since we couldn’t do much to help. The DoP couldn’t get a straight answer from the location manager as to what she was or wasn’t allowed to move around. At some point, I thought, “where is the producer right now? Should I even expect to get lunch today?” My thoughts were answered when I received a text from the producer who said she was about to arrive on set but that she couldn’t figure out how to get into the building. I went downstairs to open the door for her, and by letting her know about the current situation, I suggested for us to both go to buy food and snacks for everyone. Although she agreed, she said she wanted to leave her belongings with the rest of the things and then walk together. When we got upstairs, we found two security guards asking to see the owner of the house or the person responsible for this mess. Luckily, the producer had arrived on time for the action.
First, the guards, who turned out to be the building managers and landlords, asked to see a permission slip or any similar form of authorization to prove that we had gotten the keys legally. The only person who knew the tenant of the place (the location manager) wasn’t on set. Apparently, she left immediately after we finished unloading her car. The tenant, by not asking the landlord if we were authorized to shoot at their place, had violated one of the rules of his contract, and so had we—technically, we discovered, the tenant isn’t allowed to make such decisions without previously consulting their landlord. Probably, had we not used the common areas of the building, such as the hallway to leave our stuff, they probably wouldn’t have known and we wouldn’t have been in this trouble, but it was too late for that.
The managers asked the producer to explain herself. She said it was a student short film, for university, and she explained how we had gotten access to the building. The managers explained to the producer that she needed to ask for an authorization, by providing all of the required materials via email for a consideration of approval. If it were to be approved, they would have to pay a 400£ fee to shoot there. The producer listened silently. She wasn’t expecting that. She asked whether she could get the approval that same day, but they said it would take about two weeks. Everyone’s face went blank as we heard this. It became clear that they weren’t going to allow for us to continue the shoot at their location. I felt terrible for the director. The producer had practically ditched us by leaving her alone in finding transportation arrangements for the crew, figuring out a way to bring the lights from London, or even caring about getting food for the team who would be collaborating for free during eight days. The producer didn’t seem to care at all about the short, because whenever she didn’t feel like taking care of something, she complained and the director took over and did it herself.
At that moment, all of our hopes went up in the smoke. The director eventually acknowledged that we didn’t have a choice, and told everyone to start cleaning up. After the huge effort it had been to carry the heavy equipment, including the 30-kilo tripod stand, we began to clean up and make that same trip back down. Every face was grim, unmotivated, tired and outraged.
I could empathize with the director here. She was putting all her efforts into something that wasn’t working out due to various reasons. Although she had a committed crew, a few small errors had created a road-block.
In my opinion, if the production department isn’t doing their job properly, even with everyone else giving their best, the short won’t be up to the team’s potential. I believe this is because organization is so crucial in filmmaking, the result is always the product of a collective effort. In the middle of this huge setback, we were left with a decision: what to do next? Our location manager and our AD had left with their cars, so we didn’t have enough space to put our equipment back anywhere, even if we had somewhere to go.
But just as in stories when characters are in the darkest moment, they miraculously see light at the end of the tunnel: there was one last bit of hope. A friend of the director asked his parents if it was possible for us to film in their house guest bedroom. They agreed and so, five hours later, we were back on track. The producer wanted to feed us sandwiches that day (again, although I was thankful that at least food was thought of), but after peer pressure, she went to the store to find pizza and the parents were very kind in allowing us to use the oven.
In the end, 22 pieces of equipment loaded and unloaded, hours in the rain, hunger pangs, the uncertainty of not knowing whether we would get transportation back home, and over 12 hours of shooting every day, we managed to finish the shoot. Months later, there was a premiere, which I sadly couldn’t attend because I was back home in Spain. It was there that the team gathered to watch the final cut of 18 minutes.
I have to say, I am very proud of the work. With all the difficulties that the team faced, I was amazed at how committed and supportive the crew was in sticking to the project. I especially admire the director’s persistence and attitude towards every hurdle we jumped through. Based on my own experience, I believe that first short films are very hard to put together.
One time, however, I had the chance to listen to a producer whose filmography casually had a large number of feature film debuts of directors. He told me that directors of first features have a certain anxiety and care towards their story, as if their sense of existence and pursuit was dependent on how the project unravels stage by stage. As artists, they have a story to tell. A story that has been in progress over many, many years. To them, it is so precious that during production, they can become irritable. In some cases, the producer recalled, directors would find their personal relationships crumbling or ruined. Rather this being a scientific fact, I understood it as a curious anecdote that led me to reflect of my first experience as a director.
Despite it being on another scale, I, too, understand the passion and anxiety that goes into telling a story that is personal and precious to you, and what it means to find others who support your process. I believe one of the reasons I enjoyed this shoot so much, despite at times being moody, tired, or hungry, was because of the adrenaline and intensity that I sensed from the overall adventure, but also because of the perseverance and care that I perceived from the director. In retrospect, I wonder if I’ve romanticized the experience. Regardless though, I believe it’s a thrill to see a new director finish her first short.
And— if a first short is this crazy, I can’t imagine the first feature. The truth is, I can’t wait.
— 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)