Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
This is a real-time journal written by my very own brother Chris Peditto as he directed his micro-budget film Light And The Sufferer for $50,000 a few years ago. This movie featured Paul Dano from 12 Years A Slave and There Will Be Blood. I love this writing for the visceral sense of what micro-budget filmmaking is about—the towering highs, the crashing lows, and the absurdity of watching your crew this close to walking because the Egg McMuffins never arrive for second meal 12+ hours into a grueling day. Anyone who has worked on a micro-budget film will recognize each stage of the movie-making Odyssey. Anyone who hasn’t will be instructed. It's useful for screenwriters to understand the production process, especially if they intend to bankroll and/or direct the project themselves. Vamanos!
• Day 3
"Started beautifully. Washington Square, gorgeous spring day. Working with a dozen extras we brought in, and a handful of people we wrangled on the spot. Hours of prep for first shot. As usual, storyboards go out the window when confronted with the reality of time, lack of enough grip/electrics help and a setting sun we’re trying to catch for magic hour, which is about 45 minutes in actuality. We race for dusk, me shouting out from the center fountain area, the sky looking stunning. Lana’s (the DP’s) filters making the deep blue sky bend and swirl beautifully. The walk/don’t walk sign over Paul Dano’s head translucent, blinking above him ghostly, the moment so much more than I ever expected.
We move on, racing as the sun starts to rise, do not get through the master shot from above, the crew feeling like they’ve busted their asses for nothing. Exhausted, I start packing up cable, helping the crew who are as frustrated as I. I finish up and walk back to the craft service table to a disaster: no hot second meal waiting. All there is instant oatmeal, which hasn’t even been made for them. MAJOR MISCOMMUNICATION. The crew who’ve worked for 13 hours, going over the standard 12 without pay, quietly enraged. With indie crews it’s all about appreciation, or the lack thereof. When you bust your ass you want to be treated right. If you’re not, you feel resentful, especially if you’re deferring. When you go past 12 hours and there’s no second hot meal waiting—these people will walk. I go running, literally, for egg sandwiches, not wanting to talk about why this screw-up happened with my production staff, who themselves are overworked, exhausted. I return with the sandwiches, the crew appreciative, me apologizing, promising this will never happen again. Can you imagine ruining you film over $30 worth of egg sandwiches?
• Day 4
We moved into an amazing Gramercy Park duplex, the day began with mixed emotions. Some excited about our new digs, other crew members still resentful toward production, who were not on top of their needs the previous day. Petty stuff, you say? Get an indie crew unhappy and feeling unappreciated and it can ruin your film. We dive into the day. Lighting as always, taking longer than planned for. Lighting as always amazing when finally complete – cold blue and red and black, atmospheric, reeking of money and privilege. Millions of dollars of art decorating the walls. We dive in, the cast feeling their way through complex blocking and business – crack pipes, cigarettes, vials and gun all tossed onto table. Major interactions with the Creature, among the most complex stuff in the film, which will make us or break us. We finish the first of four major setups in the space, Lana popping in her most trippy filters yet: actors as seen through the Sufferer’s eyes bending and swirling surreally as they look into its eyes. I am ecstatic, knowing we have something very special.
We manage to make up for lost time by consolidating two shots into one, but with the Creature blocking in the next major setup, we have to pack it in at 6am without doing a take. I am told in private by my AD that there were people who didn’t appreciate my request to clear set of non-essential people. I feel my blood boil. It’s 6am and once again there is another crisis. My AD and I, who get along great, arguing at 6am over this. What more can I do?
I walk off feeling exhilarated at having shot so much great footage, but worthless, tears, literally, in eyes at having once again failed to be attentive to my crew’s needs. I’ll apologize yet again for the misunderstanding tomorrow night. Start over and hope morale is high. I hand off the last six dollars in my pocket to the AD and costume designer to take a cab. Stagger home, my eyes closing with fatigue as I walk down 23rd street. Pick up my messages on getting home. The camera department has requested two lights, which will cost $400 dollars. What’s $400 dollars, you say? It’s $400 that doesn’t exist. I’m already over budget. So now I have to begin tomorrow with more let-downs. What can I do? We must finish with what we have. That is all there is.
• Day 5
Jonathan Lethem came by to visit the set and give an interview. Overall, our best day yet. The duplex looking stunning, every angle fantastic, the architecture amazing, the lighting and colors moody and beautiful. Crew finally working well together, the cast doing amazing work. Hopped on the subway, got out thinking about the shots coming up tomorrow, how to get them all, the challenges of working on location, walked with my head down, pondering how the make the day ahead, how to economize coverage without compromising my shots, then looked up to realize I had walked nearly two blocks in the wrong direction on 23rd street. Tunnel vision.
• Day 10
The days blur. I thought last night was day nine, looked at the schedule and realized we shot day nine two days ago. Sunlight confuses me. I live in a perpetual state of chasing the sun. Last night we filmed everything in the cab with the boys. Green screen shots of the Creature chasing them over the Manhattan Bridge and back to NYC from the airport. Neon signs reflecting through their faces as they drive to the bridge, metal beams on the lower level of the bridge slicing through their faces as they talk nervously. Really beautiful. Now my sole focus is writing this new scene that bridges the brothers’ meeting in the park. I know what I want to do with it, I just have to get it down on paper. Content under pressure!
• Day 14
After several days of writing and tweaking for Dano and Esper, we shot the new walk and talks last night. The boys smoking a joint and passing a 40-ouncer as they catch up. All went well, if frantic as ever. We did four big lighting set ups around 14th street and Avenue C. The park we shot in was filled with drunks and smelled like piss. It’s now become one of my running jokes that I only take us into the finest locations. We used the crack filter which warps the image, making everything look utterly surreal and trippy. Paul D’Amato looking scary as hell as the father. Angelica Torn as always blowing me away with how effortlessly she tosses off amazing work. Dano looking incredible, passed out on the bed, his face so trippy through the filter that Lana couldn’t keep a straight face, everyone was laughing at how hilarious and amazing it looked. The best part of the day was watching the sun rise and knowing that it hadn’t beaten us today. Four more days to go…
• Day 16
Controversy and intrigue! There most definitely is, as there is on all shoots. I could tell you tales of the props master who was fired three days ago because he confessed to the art director he was having dark fantasies about her, the fantasy involving something about her and a knife. This I was informed of by the production designer, who said he obviously had a screw loose and would not be returning. Then there’s the gaffer who had be fired by the camera department two days ago because he was endlessly questioning and arguing with the DP, who decided to let him go with four days left to the shoot. This, of course, created some drama as many in the production department liked this gaffer very much and I did not agree with the decision.
Then there’s the various interpersonal dramas of different departments saying crap about one another, or rubbing each other the wrong way. Someone walks off in a huff, threatens to quit, gets offended, and ends up in tears. Many come to me with their grievances. I have learned after 20 years of production to try to not take sides unless I must. This often pisses people off, who want you to side with them, but I have to keep the peace for the good of the production.
I could also tell you about my general mental state, which is completely on edge almost without stop from the moment I get on set till we wrap 12 hours later. Non-stop, shell-shocked but exhilarated at the end of every day, without fail.
Bottom line—I don’t give a rat’s rump about the internal booshit and my own mental anxiety. All I give a damn about is if we make our days. And yesterday, our airport day, we once again made the day. I was ripping through cigarettes as we slowly made our way through 8 setups, most of which included complicated choreography of approx. 20 featured extras and a green screen shot in a little over 10 hours, plus four hours of travel to Westchester airport and back. Nerve-racking day, but…we made it. And we made it in style. We’re truly in the home stretch. Tonight, we shoot alien sex on the Hudson. Keep them fingers crossed…
• Day 17
I thought this day was going to be easy. What was I thinking? Too many days with four or five hours sleep, waking up and not being able to get back to sleep because my head’s on fire with the evening’s shots. We had seven setups on the agenda – four uptown at Park & 81st and three in the West Village. I never remember that when vehicles are involved, everything takes longer. So it went with the task of driving a cab up to the front of the building we used. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Delivery boys, traffic, walkies not working, lock up not working. It took three hours to bang out what we thought would take an hour and a half. We then rush to the side street for the important apartment scene with the boys and Creature. It’s now 3am and we should have been done with all this by 1am. I start seeing colors swirling in my head, neon reading YOU WILL NOT MAKE THE DAY -WHAT DO YOU WANNA LOSE, CHUMP?
I tuck all that away as we wrap out and rush to the West Village. We slap a modified body rig camera on Mike Esper through West Village side streets, Esper spontaneously cursing at a truck driver who shouts as he passes us on 6th Avenue, screaming after him through his tears, amazing stuff. We then rush to the basketball courts at Houston and 6th for the final scene. Lana ingeniously shooting it through a bus stop glass partition, the reflections of cars whipping through Paul’s sleeping body on the bench. The sun has risen by now, and going into hour 13, we do the final moment between Paul and the Creature on the bench from a 13-foot ladder, several ruined takes because of traffic noise, we finally nail it around 7:30am. The bright sun rising and blasting down on the bench about two minutes after get the shot. Incredible timing. Even more incredible, once again, we made our day. Everyone wasted from a 14-hour day, but no one bitched. Thank God we’re almost done.
• Day 18
We arrived at the piers along the Hudson River waterfront for the final day of shooting. Highlights: Lighting up my two favorite structures of the whole film, the dilapidated, burnt piers along 62/63rd streets and the Hudson. Two incredible, crumbling structures which Donald Trump will crush and remove within the next six months to make room for waterfront development. Now it’s just twisted metal beams rising out the Hudson, the water lapping onto the shore. The perfect spot for alien sex (a cinematic first, I believe). We first try to light both piers at once but quickly realize we don’t have the power or lights for both, so we focus on one at a time. They look amazing, and we finally shoot the location I’ve been anticipating, preserving this piece of what will soon be lost Manhattan, the twisted structures beautiful and gnarled like the twisted bodies of the aliens as they do it atop the pier.
We make it to Coney Island as sun is rising, racing out onto the beach to catch the gorgeous pinkish blue early morning light. The shot very spontaneous, everyone drinking beer, all laughing, Esper playing guitar and Dano shaking his head as he strums. We get the shot just as the light gets too bright, and we all fall on the sand after I yell ‘cut,’ laughing our asses off, hugging. We made the day. We made the week. Our third week in a row, all 18 days. I sit inside a truck sipping beer, feeling like I have literally come through battle, shell shocked, but with all my limbs and mind intact. We did it. We did it!
The last image I have is of the wire and wood Sufferer model, which came with us everywhere. I got down on the ground later after they tossed the giant thing in the trash (there was no one who wanted it and nowhere for it to live). I bowed down to it, mecca-like, paying last respects to the Mythical beast that lured me into his strange and wonderful world, thanking it for taking us safely through this, the toughest part of this process. It just stared at me, inscrutably, saying, yes, but you’re not out of the woods yet."
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- Alt Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script
- Script Gods Must Die: 10 Tips For The Unknown Screenwriter Part 1
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