VHS: diary two, the pre-production

VHS on set 1

(On-set photos by George Chan)

Between greenlighting in January and the shoot in July, the task of labeling 1, 200 VHS tapes forms a sort of constant background noise to the business proper of making a short film. Every now and then I retreat into it, conjuring up 50 or so titles as a ‘reward’ for progress on more concrete matters like the location, or casting, or prospective crew. I soon learn that the role of film director involves answering unending questions from all angles with as little hesitation as possible, never procrastinating. It’s not quite like directing theatre, which operates at a very different speed. As a creative endeavor it’s also very, very different from writing; if screenwriting is mostly a process of cogitation, quietly piecing together a puzzle, then directing is the equivalent of walking into a room and bawling, from the top of your lungs, “HELLO EVERYONE. HERE I AM. COME RIGHT OVER AND ASK ME ABOUT MY AMAZING IDEA.”

Even the owners of the properties we scout seem to have a set of professional questions for me. How big is your crew? What are you shooting on? How long is the film? What will it look like? Where will it be shown? Does it have a happy ending? For a while I suspect that this translates as: “Do you have even the slightest clue what you’re doing?” but I soon discover it’s simply custom and practice.

How big is our crew? We try to keep it as small as possible, given that we have neither scale nor space nor budget to fill a room with Hollywood-style armies of technicians and assistant’s assistant’s executive assistant’s assistants – and in the end it will transpire that a ‘small’ crew means roughly fifteen people.

What are we shooting on? We spend several months heading with conviction towards 16mm, as I like the look of super 16 immensely. But technical hitches push us towards HDcam in the final week; something I’m ultimately very grateful for, as it allows us to set up shots quickly and easily, on a shoot that only just fits into 2 days by the skin of its teeth.

How long is the film? I’m hoping for 10 minutes, and my first draft screenplay is 12 pages long. Upon writing a second draft I chop and change various elements, focus more on the characters and less on the whacky dialogue, cut several jokes I’m very fond of, and it’s still 12 pages long. After notes from exec producers, the third draft sees me cut one of the film’s 3 locations entirely, and heavily condense the dialogue at the top. It’s still 12 pages long. My shooting script is then constructed after a phonecall with one of my actors, during which he quite rightly points out that a certain set of lines slows down the drama’s conclusion considerably; I cut them, as well as some related dialogue earlier in the script. It’s still 12 pages long. Never mind, I think – it’ll move faster on screen: I tend to write pretty detailed action and scene description, I’ve filled the screenplay with random tape labels, listed in single columns, we’ll be able to bring it in at a neat 10 minutes, right? WRONG. We edit the film, we edit it further, we add titles and credits: and bingo, 12 pages in standard formatting equals a 13 minute film. There is no escape.

VHS board 3

Meanwhile I’m scrawling out a basic storyboard in order to communicate something of the look of the film to a DoP. I worry constantly that I’m thinking too much in terms of TV framing; shooting conversations over the shoulder, going from wide to medium to close-up, slamming in on my characters’ eyes at every dramatic moment. But after a brief dalliance with the idea of filming the whole shebang hand-held, something begins to become clear to me: I need to make this film simple. I have to make sure I don’t crowd the story with flashy shots and ‘admirable’ directorial decisions. The events require an immediate suspension of disbelief from the viewer, the acceptance of a weird little world on its own terms. I’d be an idiot to add further terms and conditions.

When we cast and crew the film, and I have my first phone conversations with my team, it becomes a sort of mantra. The brilliant David Bekkevold – who pretty much parachutes in at the last minute to do our sound recording – asks “Do you want anything special?” and as we’re talking about soundscape, about sonics (on which subject I can gambol around for hours, the happiest geek on earth) I’m almost tempted to throw something clever into the mix. But I stop myself, and stick to my guns. “Nope.” I reply. “Nothing special. We’re just recording two people, talking, in a room…”

Dream selection