Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Filming on Location in the Wilds of Michigan

On Location Filming 'Confirmation' in the U.P. of Michigan.

During my week in Michigan filming 'Confirmation' I was reminded of a Dustin Hoffman story, possibly apocryphal, about him on a film set early in his career. Hoffman knew the value of absolute naturalism even though his background and training was on the stage (he has gone back to it over the years - Willy Loman, Shylock) and would engage the crew, whoever happened to be closest, in fact, in everyday, normal, unaffected conversation and when the time came for 'action' would simply turn into the scene and continue talking. Of course, his focus was still there, his intensity regarding the scene and the arc and intention. But his actual physical delivery was completely natural. To the uninitiated this may sound easy. It is not always so. Especially as the 12 and 14 hour days begin to mount up. At that point one of two things begins to happen: either the focus starts to dissipate or it becomes too much, too sharp as the actor tries to adjust the 'drama' him or herself. It becomes necessary to remind oneself that adjusting the 'drama' is not the actors job when it comes to film, it is the director and the editor's job. Film is not shot in sequence, of course, so it's necessary to always know exactly where one is in the story; what has just happened and what has yet to happen, in other words. And that, of course, is just the tip of the iceburg. Other things come into play on top of that such as that ol' devil-sent, continuity. Matching the shots. "Let's do it again, Clif, you used your left hand to give him the cup of coffee in the medium shot. You used your right hand in the over the shoulder shot. So we need to pick one." Oh. Damn. Okay. So in addition to all of the 'naturalism' concessions, one has to do it exactly the same way in all of the subsequent shots. None of this is new. Just sayin'.

As the long days wear on, it's easy to let one thing become more important than the other. It's easy to become so caught up in the 'matching shots' that one forgets the reason for the film in the first place: to tell a dramatic and watchable and identifiable story. And then, in an effort to get back on track, one can start forgetting about the technical aspects all over again. It's a fine line.

Film acting is boring. There, I said it. It is. It's boring. Mostly it involves waiting for the camera to turn around, waiting for the lighting to be reset, waiting for the next location, waiting for the slight sight line adjustment, waiting for airplane to go over so the shot can continue, waiting for the sound guy to readjust for various movement and blocking, waiting, waiting, waiting. And then when all of the soul-sapping waiting is done, be able to focus and nail it clearly take after take after take. Film acting is uncomfortably close to solving a long and tedious math problem sometimes.

And then comes the scene or the moment when the camera comes in close, the crux of the film, the big dramatic potshot and often times, because everyone is a pro, the director doesn't have the time or the inclination to let the dust settle for a second and pull the actor aside and remind him, "Okay, this is the three seconds we've been working toward for the past three days." The actor must know this and adjust accordingly. Just the way it is.

It was a good 'shoot' as they say. An old, very old, Jesuit camp rented for the occasion in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, beautiful countryside, crisp, cold weather. My final 'martini shot' for the last day was in the pouring rain, doing a shot over and over until it was just right; saying my line and then ambling over to a 1959 Ford pick-up, turning for one last, wry smile and driving off into the storm. It was about 35 degrees and I had only a t-shirt on. It was an important shot so we did it until we were happy with it, the night wearing on, the temps dropping, the rain coming down harder and harder, the overtime mounting up. And finally, after what seemed an eternity, long about ten-thirty, we were satisfied. I asked to do it a couple more times for good measure (accompanied by a couple groans from the crew) and we wrapped for the day.

Most of my scenes were opposite a tremendous, young, sixteen year old actor named Thomas Phelan (remember the name - he's gonna be a major star, I predict - a young DiCaprio in the making). The film itself is G picture - sort of like "Shiloh" without the dog. The director, Michael Breault, kept the thing moving briskly and quickly. He instantly excised any unecessary emotion or 'profundity' from our work, thank goodness. Michael also kept a great deal of levity and casualness on the set. I appreciated that. He was also a very generous director, always asking me how I thought the scene should be played, considering it, and sometimes even shooting the scene two ways, mine and his, and then promising to figure things out in the edit. He was under no obligation to do that, of course, but Michael clearly loves actors (his is a theatre background, too, working for a time as the AD at Circle in the Square in NYC) and trusts them. At least he trusted young Thomas and myself. The day after I wrapped, he had some eighty 13 and 14 year old extras on the set. I wished him luck with that, he rolled his eyes, and I jumped on a plane.

Michael also didn't believe in letting actors watch the 'dailies' on the set. I didn't see a second of the work on film so frankly I have no idea whatsoever how it looks. But I did get to see how it looked as they set it up and I loved all of the deep brown and sepia colors he was using. Very old-fashioned. He had me in an old, dirty, white t-shirt (much to the chagrin of the lighting guy). The character ('Gus') is an old, crusty, war veteran, living out the rest of his life in relative solitude as a summer camp cook away from civilization. I kept thinking of Robert Duval in 'Tender Mercies.'

I particularly liked the catering on the set. They couldn't very well fly an entire company out to do it so instead they did something very smart; they employed an army of local housewives to cook. Consequently the meals on the set were like dinner at The Waltons everday. Very tasty.

All in all, a really fun experience, and actually, boredom and all, I really look forward the next one. Which, thank my lucky stars, will be sooner than I expected. More on that as it pans out.

See you tomorrow.