VHS: diary three, the shoot

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All my dreams on VHS is eventually shot in two 12-hour working days, although most people get onto set earlier and leave considerably later. I’m still vacuuming our location’s living room floor at 10 am the day after we’ve wrapped, whilst the line producer washes up in the kitchen. The budget we’re working to means that we find ourselves scuttling around Tesco the day before the shoot, buying crisps and biscuits. The costumes for our actors are a combination of clothes borrowed from friends of appropriate dimensions, supermarket own-brand special offers and “model’s own.” So as not to blow the electrics of the location provided by White Rabbit Media we knock on the neighbour’s door and they kindly allow us to siphon mains power away to a big ol’ light rigged outside the house: they give us the sun. The 1,600 VHS tapes (cast-offs from a famous Broadcasting Corporation) have been hand-labeled in a marathon session two weekends prior to the shoot. Production designer Jodie Harris has rushed around her own home, nicking off with boyfriend’s socks and wilting pot plants, to dress the set in convincing bachelor-pad mode. She’s also been to the printers to run off a few copies of a major prop: a mocked-up manual for the imaginary, unseen device which records all our protagonist’s dreams. Jodie has spent hours on the faux-tech diagrams, I’ve spent the best part of an afternoon writing impenetrable jargon for the thing (read it here) and ultimately it’s going to be on screen for 3 seconds.

Whilst we’ve begged, borrowed and blagged most of the production, the technical equipment is nothing less than the real deal. Cinematographer Rob McGregor arrives in a truck laden with the biggest train set in the world, tracks, jibs, gizmos, monitors, LEDs blinking from every orifice.

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Mr McGregor very much saves my bacon over the next two days… I feel immensely comfortable with directing the actors, but less confident in communicating my technical needs to the crew. Rob steps in from time to time, especially in the opening few hours of the day one, where I’m still in ‘self-shooting’ mode (the mindset you adopt when doing the whole thing yourself) and therefore preoccupied by everything OFF the set, as well as everything ON it. By the afternoon I’ve adopted the focus I need, which is just as well… because it’s on the second day that everything starts to go wrong.

Let’s get this straight: it’s no-one’s fault. Cast and crew are uniformly magnificent. I walk away from the weekend with the sense that making films is like predicting weather systems – it’s the hopeful art of harnessing chaos. Things go wrong even if you’re doing everything right. There are moments where colleagues walk up to me and prefix the conversation with “on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst thing that can possibly happen, I think what I’m about to tell you is, oh, maybe 7 or 8.”

We discover that the location is on a bus route (not noticed on the recce, as the bus in question runs far less regularly on Sundays.) We have a wardrobe disaster leading to a 50 / 50 decision I have to make on the spot — which half of the previous 4 setups do we make useless to the editor? I’ve already been through the script with an eye to what I might cut in the event of running out of time, but it’s no less easy when – with grim inevitability – the call has to be made for real. There are times where I’m convinced I’m flying blind. But these worries are knocked out of me by a great many wonderful moments, playing out right in front of us, as the story comes to life: fleeting glances between actors Gugu and O-T; intuitive shifts of focus from the camera team; comic business suddenly dropping into unexpected places; and a slow zoom out from the immense stack of VHS cassettes which, second for second, looks exactly as I’d imagined it a year and a half ago.

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