March 31, 2015
Day 51 of 70
A half day today, because everyone has to pack. We're done with the North Island, done with all our beautiful woods that take so long to get to each morning. Short Stubby Road, Miro Road, Wainui Road - this network of forestry we made our base is now in the rearview. We wrapped out on our [redacted] set, which by now has been reduced to a beautiful ruin. I remember back in November, when we were desperately stomping through the woods, our phones pointed at the sky to track sun direction, trying to find the right place to build it. Eventually (and, now that I think about it, almost arbitrarily) we stumbled on a spot a little ways off the road that seemed somewhat right. We all pitched in to hack away the dense overgrowth that grew amidst the pines and up the little hillock that drew us there in the first place, and I guess what we saw underneath was good enough. It's sure looked great on camera over the past six weeks.
(Here is a video I shot that day.
That's Joe Nolan, our 1st Assistant Director, falling from that precipice there at the end.)
Having shot it out this morning, the [redacted] will be removed. Every trace that a movie was made on this spot will be gone within a few weeks. All those little ponga trees we trampled will grow right back. The footprints and tire treads and bushels of pine needles we dropped everywhere will disappear into the turf. The woods themselves, being forestry land, will one day soon be raized, combed over and replanted. On a parallel timeline, in a month's time, I'll be packing to head back to the states, and a rough cut of the entire movie will exist and have been seen by me.
But first! Tomorrow the entire cast and crew hops aboard a plane and head to the South Island for the last four weeks of shooting.
I was watching some of the cut-together footage the other day. I'm too close to tell how it all adds up just yet, but I like how it feels. It seems sensitive and scrappy. Like a little kid with hand-me-down-clothes and a bloody nose, cuddling a kitten.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:32 AM
March 30, 2015
Day 50 of 70
That feeling I wrote about back on Day 20 is here again. We were out in the woods, shooting with just our two titular characters - a welcome change of pace after the past few weeks. Heavy scenes, light mood. It was the last day for Oliver, one of our Pete doubles, and we tried to make everything extra special for him. Wes Bentley came out for a few pick-up shots. He brought his little son Charlie, who we enlisted to provide an off-camera cry of "daddy!" for the scene, which was just the most charming thing ever. And Eric Vespe, who writes for Ain't It Cool News, happened to be visiting this part of the world and came to visit set as well; in spite of running in similar circles for over a decade, we'd never actually met in person until today. It was great to have a fellow Texan in the house.
We wrapped thirty minutes early (also a welcome change of pace), and I went back to the hotel and ordreded a pizza. I'd forgotten that there's a pizza chain in New Zealand that offers vegan pizza topped with locally sourced vegan cheese. It's just a standard offering! Sort of like the nationwide fast food burger chain that has multiple vegan options. This country is the best.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:43 AM
March 29, 2015
Day 49A of 70
We received a gift last week, and that gift was a seventh day on which to return to a certain location where we hadn't finished our work and pick off as many leftovers as we possibly could. There was a long list, and at the center of it was a little scene I didn't want to go home without. Everything else was gravy, and whatever we didn't get we would cheat after we moved down to the South island.
It was pouring rain all morning. We sat in our cars and tried to wait it out, and then eventually gave up on waiting and built a tent and set up a green screen shot that we'd already planned to get down South. Just as we were rolling on it, blue skies showed up. We got back after lunch and shot that little scene - little but super important - and then the sun was setting and our day was done.
Here's a little dude who was super happy about the rain.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:51 AM
March 28, 2015
Day 49 of 70
I wish I could say that it's over the course of an entire day that my directions to actors go from precise, playable adjustments to vague assemblages of feelings but, since I can often be heard giving direction while the camera is rolling, I have concrete proof that I'm a mess from the get-go. The best a thespian can do is learn to interpret the tenor of my emphatic gobbledigook. God forbid they ask for a line reading.
However, I did manage one somewhat lucid direction today that I'll hang onto for future usage: "Less Richard Dawkins, more Mr. Rogers."
We wrapped out of another location today. They're dropping like flies. How do we still have more of this movie to shoot?
Posted by David Lowery at 5:09 AM
March 27, 2015
Day 48 of 70
I had my most common recurring nightmare last night - a zombie dream. The specifics always vary, but the threat and accompanying sense of futile dread remains consistent, as does the fact that at least part of such dreams always take place in my childhood backyard. I also sometimes have nightmares about the same backyard being overrun with snakes, but the zombie dreams are always worse. In last night's iteration, I was trying to dismember some revenant that wouldn't stay dead. The pieces kept coming back.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:34 AM
March 26, 2015
Day 47 of 70
The highlight of today was introducing Robert Redford to the gaggle of kids he'd be performing with - all non-actors, all under the age of ten or eleven. One particular nine-year-old sized him up with very put-upon swagger and then, moments later, noticed his boots were untied and volunteered to lace them up for him. This wasn't necessarily a kindly offer - there was a bit of one-up-manship to it, a "need someone to fix your shoelaces for, bud?" sort of move. Moments later, a handful of kids had gathered around to see who could best knot this bemused movie star's laces. If I can only hang onto one memory from this movie, this would rank pretty high on the list of candidates.
Later in the day the rain came back, and the sound of it on our location's tin roof forced us into one of those beautiful reprieves that are impossible not to enjoy, no matter how much of a dent they might put in the momentum of the day. This also would be a good memory to hang onto. Maybe even better than the other one.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:45 AM
March 25, 2015
Day 46 of 70
This morning I accidentally took two night-time Sudafeds instead of the daytime option. I briefly wondered if it might cause me to drift off during a take, but our medic assured us that it would do nothing of the sort (I usually never take pharmaceutical medication for anything, so I have no idea how this stuff works).
Today was storytime. It took me right back to Pioneer. Many pages of dialogue, and a great orator to deliver them. We all just gathered round, sat back and listened.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:41 AM
March 24, 2015
Day 45 of 70
I woke up feeling supremely awful, but heavy doses of oregano, garlic, ginger, apple cider vinegar and various other oils and tinctures (plus some sudafed for good measure) made the day manageable as we tried to finish what we'd started and then push on ahead. What happens when you get seriously ill on a movie? Do they actually shut things down if the director gets the flu and is wracked with fever? I don't want to find out. We did our Under The Skin shot, which satisfied my standing desire to lay massive amounts of dolly track in the woods, and then we opened up onto our big logging site, which was just a dream come true to shoot. Way back when we first pitched our take on this project, we described the images we shot today. It looked exactly right.
(The lumberjack imagery has a lot of precedents, but one of them is straight out of another Disney film - The Journey Of Natty Gann, which made a big impression on me when I was very young. I rewatched it a few months ago while we were in prep, and it holds up really well - really great early James Horner score, too.)
The last scene we covered today, Scene 31, consisted of two shots which we filmed simultaneously in the last possible vestiges of daylight - the sun was long gone and in almost every direction it was already night, but we squeezed that dusk in the West for all it was worth and filled the frames with smoke and debris and grimy tired men and women at work. Those two shots are probably going to wind up being the prettiest in the movie. They won't match to anything else but who cares.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:38 AM
March 23, 2015
Day 44 of 70
Back at the redwoods. This was the last of the shooting days that, way back in prep, when we were going over the schedule, I'd deemed potentially unmakable. There are are days that seem doable, days that seem like they might be exceedingly tricky but not impossible, and those that have red flags all over them, and this was one of those. We buckled down, determined to pull it off. Two shots in, it started raining.
We've been blessed with remarkably agreeable weather thus far, all things considered. Everyone prepared us for the worst, but thus far everything's mostly gone our way. Even today, the precipitation at first seemed very dealable-with. We put up a giant 20x over the actors and you couldn't even tell - until the drizzle turned into a downpour that showed no signs of stopping.
We broke for lunch early. I spent most of it sitting under a tent at the mouth of those woods, all alone, listening to the rain cascade gently through those towering treetops. It was beautiful. It was also around this time that I started to feel a suspicious tickle in the back of my throat.
We came back from lunch and found our set a muddy cesspool. While the art department and locations team broke out heat lamps to try and dry out the dirt, we decided to push into the woods and pick up the end of a scene we'd dropped a few weeks earlier. That shot was on a sunny day, but with the foliage blocking most of the rain and an 18k providing a few warm grace notes, it seemed like it might work. We got one shot done, turned around for the other and just as we were turning around for the other, the heavens opened up just a little more and our faux-sunny forest was suddenly a typhoon jungle with a very suspect ray of artificial light punching through it.
So it goes. We did manage to keep shooting, eventually, and got a good chunk of that first scene done. The sun eventually came out, to such a degree that we had to wait on clouds to at least try to match what we'd started shooting earlier that morning. We moved fast and efficiently and made the most of a comical situation, and I'd like to think that had it not been for the weather, this unmakable day would in fact have been very makable indeed.
On the long drive home that night, the tickle in my throat grew into a vicious scratch. My face turned flush. It had finally happened. I was sick.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:57 AM
March 21, 2015
Day 43 of 70
Today we finished the scene in question. Around lunchtime I would have said we had no chance of pulling it off, but the prospect of having to come back on our day off to finish things lit just enough of a fire under us that we knocked it all out before the sun set. It was ridiculously hard, until suddenly it ceased to be. There was lots of running around and shouting and confusion and miscommunication but amidst the melee we got what seemed to be all the necessary shots, plus a few extras. We knocked a lot of people down and blew something up. I'm sure we're missing something, but I'm not going to risk cutting the sequence together just yet in case I find out that we are - I'd rather wait until the [redacted] set gets struck next week and it's too late.
I also finished Of Human Bondage this morning. It was magnificent, and will forever be linked to my memories of this shoot, and the mornings and evenings spent reading it in restaurants on our days off. I remember a long time ago reading an interview with one of the Weitz brothers (I can't remember if it was Paul or Chris) conducted on the set of one of their films, in which he mentioned reading Vanity Fair (the book) on set. He said that he always read a big book while making a film, to have something to do in between set-ups. I always loved that idea, but I can't for the life of me imagine actually focusing on something else while shooting, especially while everyone else is working. I can scarcely even bring myself to sit down.
Posted by David Lowery at 4:55 AM
March 20, 2015
Day 42 of 70
Third day of this big scene, and also the day that David and Nathan Zellner's astounding Kumiko The Treasure Hunter opens in the US. The common ground between these two facts is that there is a character named Zellner in this scene and we've been listening to people shout his name all morning. Good cosmic timing.
Today is also the 11th anniversary of the opening of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. When I read that I almost started crying.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:36 AM
March 19, 2015
Day 41 of 70
We are two days into a very tough sequence. When the going gets hard like this, I catch myself thinking on the drive to set in the morning that that in just over twelve hours I'll be back in the car heading home and I'll be that much closer to being done. This is not a great mindset in which to function.
That drive to set is just long enough to listen to an entire record all the way through. This morning we listened to Bill Callahan's A River Ain't Too Much To Love. It's one of my all-time favorite albums, but I haven't heard to it in ages and I forgot how how moving and true it is. It meant the world to me. It still means the world to me. It was good to be reminded of this, especially today. I always aim to make things that might mean as much to someone as my favorites means to me, and striving for that makes the rough patches worth it. It reminds me to grit my teeth and wish the day might last a little longer.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:36 AM
March 18, 2015
Day 40 of 70
Make that three or four corners...
Posted by David Lowery at 3:34 AM
March 17, 2015
Day 39 of 70
Spent the day shooting on a nonexistent bridge. I will now amend a previous statement: action scenes are easy to shoot so long as you maintain some level of continuity. Once you start jumping around, it gets pretty sticky. I've backed myself into two or three corners so far that I'm not completely sure how to get out of...
Posted by David Lowery at 3:46 AM
March 16, 2015
Day 38 of 70
Isiah Whitlock, Jr. returns to us this week; he wasn't supposed to shoot again until we hit our homestretch on the South Island, but Tropical Cyclone Pam was supposed to blow in over the weekend and so we scrambled for weather cover and shot out our Mack 10 cab and the Sheriff's Office today (even though the storm was eventually downgraded and amounted to little more than a burst of rain no heavy than what we've already frequently shot in). I'm sure tomorrow it'll come back around and unleash the heavens on us, just as soon as we get back outside.
Mr. Whitlock's scene was about a page and a half of dialogue, which he performed beautifully and which we covered from several different angles. Each time we ran the scene all the way through. This is something I was never really comfortable doing in the past; I'd always figure out in advance which part of a scene would be covered from each shot, and not really do too much in the way of overlapping. On Pioneer, there were a few takes where we ran through the whole 15 page script, but generally I've always tried to be more direct and focused about what each beat needs and not spend too much time on coverage. Last year, though, I directed an episode of the Sundance Channel show Rectify and found that the general approach on that set was to shoot every scene in its entirety in as many set-ups as possible, formalism be damned. It was interesting. It required a broader style of directing - I could go to an actor with a list of adjustments to a scene, but would also know that they might not be addressed with any sense of exactitude. Direction became a series of general nudges that gradually, cumulatively moved the scene into the right zone (and, to be sure, usually yielded beautiful things). Here, I've tried to get the best of both worlds. We'll run the whole scene in any given set-up, but by the last take I'll be keeping the cameras rolling and making line-by-line adjustments. Getting those pieces that make the points. I'll always try to pick strong shots that can hold their own, but I also aim to get enough of them that, should a moment need emphasis, I'll be able to underline it.
I'm going to stop myself here before I get carried away discussing the elements of style.
This past weekend's moviegoing consisted of Chappie and, to help quell any deep regret over missing my tenth anniversary of attending SXSW, a private viewing of Todd Rohal's Uncle Kent 2 on the very night it premiered in Austin. I found it oddly moving, possibly because I was so deliriously worn out.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:57 AM
March 14, 2015
Day 37 of 70
This afternoon we ran afoul of our old friend the sun, who forced us out of wide shots on our magnificent location and into close-ups in a gravel parking lot. Close-ups of faces will always be the most epic of subjects, but still, it's always frustrating to be standing alongside unparalleled natural beauty and have to point the camera away from it. You start to wonder why you picked this location and why you're driving so far every morning to shoot there. Then the afternoon begins to trickle into evening and the sun sinks lower and suddenly that reason why pops out at you in full, vivid relief. You swap that 75mm for a 32 as fast as you can and point the camera where you always meant to and hope you get what you came for.
I came home today to see announcements in the trades for adaptations of both Alfred Bester's sci-fi classic The Stars My Destination and Stephen King's The Jaunt, the title of which is a reference to Bester's novel. I've oft daydreamed about adapting these properties - and am currently working (very slowly) on a second draft of different adaptation which owes a teleportative debt to both. I might have to change some of my jargon.
Posted by David Lowery at 5:57 AM
March 13, 2015
Day 36 of 70
Today we got started on the Mad Max stuff. Early in the morning, as we were setting up for a shot involving two motor vehicles, someone suggested we bite the bullet and just do it on green screen. The erroneous nature of this route was proved in dailies, when we were watching our cast driving real trucks on real roads with real sunlight and real landscapes racing by behind them. There's nothing else like it. It definitely helped ease the tension I was feeling - I woke up with a knot in my stomach that wouldn't go away. An accumulation of worries. I couldn't even finish a cup of coffee. Sitting on that process trailer watching 80's pickups do their thing was the only cure.
Incidentally, one of our stunt coordinators actually worked on the new Mad Max movie. I need to ask him for some stories.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:46 AM
March 12, 2015
Day 35 of 70
The halfway point! Would it be psychologically beneficial to start the countdown over tomorrow with another day 1, or should I plunge forward into the unknown? Would I sleep better counting backwards? I should probably just stop counting altogether.
We celebrated the midpoint with thunderstorms and makeshift cover - a tent of silks and solids in the middle of a field. We were supposed to start shooting a car chase today (technically, second unit started it yesterday - my points of reference for them were The Sugarland Express and both the Mad Max: Fury Road trailers), and what were meant to be A-frame shots turned into poor-man's-process close-ups.
We also had a new member of the cast join us today. Before we started rolling on his first scenes, our boom operator turned to me and said "just stop for a second and think: you're about to direct Robert Redford." It was good advice.
Posted by David Lowery at 4:11 AM
March 11, 2015
Day 34 of 70
Today is a day that will eventually fade from my memory in light of the scene that will be cut together from all that we shot. It'll be a beautiful scene, and by the time it's all sewn up and finished I won't hold what it felt like to shoot it against it.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:55 AM
March 10, 2015
Day 33 of 70
An intermediate day - finishing up various scenes, turning fans on in people's faces, scaling heights. An interesting and wonderful fact about Kiwi film production is that there isn't really any craft services. There's a table with coffee and tea (and instant miso soup) and baskets of fresh fruit. Two hours after we start, morning tea is served - a light snack, usually a cup of salad or noodles or sometimes a sandwich or something like that - and then two hours before we wrap afternoon tea comes along to tide everyone over. It's almost enough sustenance to make one feel okay about skipping lunch and dinner, which I'd do more often if the vegan food our caterer cooks up wasn't so good.
I watched the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's The Island Of Dr. Moreau. It was terrific and, given present circumstances, particularly maddening. I could watch movies like this and the (utterly inspirational) Jodorowsky's Dune all day long. Hopefully that doesn't qualify as hubris.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:39 AM
March 9, 2015
Day 32 of 70
Our B-camera dolly grip Winston said with shovel in hand some words which summed up the wonderful attitude of our entire crew: "We'll just dig a hole. If we need to dig another, we will."
Posted by David Lowery at 3:47 AM
March 7, 2015
Day 31 of 70
Today we shot a scene with a very specific prop; for the sake of this anecdote, let's say it was a paper airplane (it's not). We'd spent a long time in prep getting this paper airplane just right. We tried out many different versions, had many different people take stabs at it. At one point, there was an open call for paper airplane contributions amongst all the departments. A version was settled upon which we all liked, and then multiple copies were made. Every fold in the paper was taken into consideration, and we had iterations made that covered every stage of progress in the plane's simple construction. We had masters, we had stand-ins, we had works-in-progress, and we'd even already shot one scene where the chosen paper airplane was just barely glimpsed.
But today we shot the scene where it would be made on camera and filmed in a close-up. And as we staged the scene, I looked at this prop that we'd spent so much time getting just right and realized that it was all wrong.
Now, my disposition is such that in this sort of situation I'd be inclined to let things slide; everyone worked so hard on this prop, and who was I to rock the boat at the last second? I never want people to be mad at me, or annoyed or frustrated. I also never want them to dislike my movies, and oftentimes these two wants are not at all inclusive. Directing a movie is a job in which rocking the boat is often mandatory, and one in which gut instincts should always be listened to. I've made the mistake of biting my tongue too many times in the past; not today! I quietly called Jade and Tasha, our wonderful props master, and explained my last-second misgivings and asked them to whip up something new. We wouldn't shoot the close-up until the end of the day. I described roughly what this bold new paper airplane needed to look like, and for the next few hours, between set-ups, they'd bring in new versions until finally a brand new master was there in front of the camera, ready for its hero shot. It looked almost perfect.
Something was slightly off, though. I squinted at it and paced about and then, right before the cameras rolled, ducked in and added a few more folds to the paper, at which point it seemed just right and we shot it.
Posted by David Lowery at 7:21 PM
March 6, 2015
Day 30 of 70
Today, at long last, was our first day of shooting on the [redacted[ set. It was surreal to see it realized through a lens, after all this time; it was almost exactly a year ago that my brother painted the first rendition of it. The first scene we shot there was a subtle homage to either Return Of The Jedi, Rambo or Badlands, depending on who you asked. We finished the major coverage of it just in time for the rain that was already falling to turn torrential, which was handy, seeing as how the next scene was supposed to actually take place in the rain. Ironically, the implements by which we shaped the dim sunlight also blocked most of the precipitation from the camera - but at least the sound of rain on 12x solids set an authentic mood.
Also of note today: Toby played the dragon for one scene. Make a note now to try to guess which one when you see the finished film!
Posted by David Lowery at 2:57 AM
March 5, 2015
Day 29 of 30
A redwood forest is a great place for a nap.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:23 AM
March 4, 2015
Day 28 of 70
This is a day I've long been anticipating: the 28th day of production, which marks the same number of days we spent shooting Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Towards the end of of that shoot, I wanted to die and/or quit making movies. I remember finishing day ten and wondering how I could handle eighteen more demoralizing beat-downs. Of course, the moment we actually wrapped the rose-colored glasses came on, which is why I'm here now, but still - in the months leading up to this gig, the sheer duration of the production grew increasingly daunting. I've never focused on just one thing for anywhere near this long, mentally or physically, and I wasn't sure how I'd handle it or if I could pace myself - although, on the plus-side, I was looking forward to having enough time to shoot things properly for once.
Now, on day 28, I feel fairly certain of two things: one can adapt to anything, and no movie ever has enough time to shoot things properly. Filmmaking, I now suspect, is infinitely scaleable. How else to explain that we are scraping by each day by the skin of our teeth, rushing like mad to complete scenes that demand at least twice the time as we have for them? In the moment, our schedule feels ridiculous and unfair and sometimes comical and often just wrong - but we buckle down and somehow we finish the work. And although I have no idea how we'd do it, I know that if we only had a few weeks to shoot the same script, we'd be finishing it too - just as if we had 150 days, we'd still be running out of time.
And as for how I'm handling it: allow me to delve once more into the marathon metaphor that I find so consistently applicable to every stage of the filmmaking process. When I ran my first marathon back in 2011, I'd never made it past mile fifteen in training. That was about two weeks before the race, and it was agonizingly difficult. It filled me with despair. I considered withdrawing from the marathon altogether. But then I remembered what everyone always told me about adrenaline, how it picks you up and carries you, and decided I might as well give it a go. That morning of the race, the miles just blew by and I remember suddenly realizing I was at mile sixteen and feeling totally great. The last ten miles were hard, but never painful. I knew they were coming and somewhere, on some deep internal unconscious level, adjusted accordingly.
I imagine that's exactly what's happening now.
If I ever make a movie in which an early-80s pickup truck will be heavily featured, please remind me to have the engine converted to bio-diesel before we start shooting.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:01 AM
March 3, 2015
Day 27 of 70
Shooting action scenes is the best. There is a clear directive for the characters that can generally be boiled down to: don't die. Both the characters and the movie itself - and by degree you, the director - need to get from point A to point B to point C. There are certain shots you need to get there. Each one leads to the next with an undefinable logic. Some of those shots involve big stunts, and even when they don't, they demand a clean, simple clarity that has to be a little bit sharper than everything else. It's a ton of fun. Yesterday I said there were no easy days, but I will now amend that: action scenes are easy. Except perhaps for stunt players and steadicam operators.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:25 AM
March 2, 2015
Day 26 of 70
Every morning I wake up thinking that, twelve hours from now, we'll be over the hump. Then I think - oh wait! There's that scene on Thursday that we still have to get and then we'll be over the hump. Then I look at the schedule and see that Friday is yet another tough one, and then next week there's that other big thing that I forgot about and then....
Sometimes it's an emotional beat, other times it's a tough bit of blocking, often it's just a scene with two or more people in it (always a challenge for me!), every now and then it's a musical number. There are no easy days! Remembering this is important.
Incidentally, musical numbers generally make everything better - the one we shot in ATBS that I shouldn't have cut out of the theatrical cut was one of the best days we ever had on that set.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:04 AM