Director’s Journal: Day 17

Wednesday, Day 17.

Our last day with the full crew arrives, and there is a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie that is noticeable with most of the cast and crew.  The interns play soccer in the yard with Kareem’s four-year old son, and smoke cigarettes in the shade of the trees in the yard.  There is laughter, accolades handed out freely, and a feeling of relief.  In spite of this, we quickly come up against some challenges.

We race against the clock to shoot two sequences at the front door of Kareem’s home before the sun rises past some trees and makes the lighting less desirable.  We are neck and neck with the sun, and one shot is interrupted by one of the crew members who has forgotten that it is the director’s responsibility to yell cut.  Jeremy becomes frustrated beyond restraint, loses his temper, and yells.  Still racing against the clock, we somehow manage to complete the shot.  The reality is, many of us are at the end of our ropes, with sleep deprivation, daily heatstroke, and differing tolerances for frustration and working styles.  Everyone came to this project with expectations, and whether theirs were met or not affects their outlook, and has become clearer as the weeks progress.  I find that I have to constantly remind myself that most everyone is volunteering for this project, and to focus on our strengths, and work from there.

We spend about an hour trying to rig together a makeshift dolly track for an idea that I have for the one moving HD shot in the film.  We use the baby carriage from Kareem’s garage, and some flat plant boards.  We decide that it looks too shakey, and give up on the idea.  I’m not too disappointed, since I feel comfortable with stationary shots.  When the camera doesn’t move, the director has near total control over composition of the image, and what kind of manipulation can be done with the shot in post-production.  We shoot the scene where Sami Aziz (Kareem Aal) walks past a window with hanging pots and pans, and move to the back yard where Adam is preparing for his big drama scene.

We rearrange the order of shots, as we have done daily throughout the shoot, in order to include a beautiful ray of sun on the space in the yard where Sarah Martens needs to stand with a photograph of Adam.   We set up the shot, racing against the clock, as the sun inches further and further beneath the roof.  With about a minute to spare, we get what we need.

DSC_0054-3After lunch, we have a surprise birthday cake for Aman Ghawanmeh, Mohannad’s young sister, who weeps, partly because her sister is moving to the Middle East soon and won’t see her for a year, and partly because the shoot is coming to an end, and she has been instrumental to the food preparation, wardrobe assisting, and as emotional support to Mohannad.

As lunch progresses, Mohannad and I re-write some dialogue for the exchange we are about to shoot in the garage, where Mohannad confronts his angry nephew.  We go through various ideas, and land on Mohannad’s which poignantly illustrates the importance of family for Palestinians.

We set up in the sweltering garage, and shoot the scene day for night with the garage door closed.  It quickly rises to well over 90 degrees, and we come up against a reoccurring theme in the making of our film: airplane noise.  It seems that we run through the scene 15 times, each time being interrupted by another airplane.  Adam finally nails the timing that I am looking for, and we flop out of the garage, drenched in sweat.

I bring the antique pickup around to the back of the house, and we shoot a scene where it pulls up, visible through the open garage door.  It’s a heavy truck without power steering, and the shifter is tricky.  Rather than teaching Sara how to drive it, I hop in and double as Sara.  We do a few takes with her sitting next to me trying to block me from being seen by the camera.  After a while, we rig up a black hood that covers me completely, and I drive the truck hunched over, out of view.

I park the truck, and jog around to the front of the house to get the Triumph for its last scene in the film.  It starts after a while, and I ride it around back to the garage.  The brief jaunt around the house feels good as my sweat evaporates from the breeze.  We shoot the scene where Mohannad shows Adam the motorcycle.  I notice that while they rev the engine, it starts to sound funny, but ignore it so that we can finish the shot.  After three or four takes, the engine dies, and a cloud of burning smoke rises from the Triumph.  Cut, and print.

A skeleton crew and two actors pile into my car and we scout out a location for a quick scene that we need with Mohannad and Flora in a Volvo.  We find it as clouds mount in the sky, and grab the shot before it becomes too dark.  Julie Gaynin takes a little B Roll, and then we pack up and return to Kareem’s home.

This is our final evening together as a whole crew, and there is more than a little sentimentality.  Rather than rush home, we do some straightening up.  The evening grows darker, and Kareem brings out the plate of pita and feta, olives and pickled vegetables, and the stuffed garlic eggplant that I love so much.  I review the damages done to Kareem’s house: a broken door knob, a cracked picture window, dirt and grime all over the floor, a kitchen full of dirty dishes.  I let him know that I will take care of everything, and he reassures me that there is no rush, and not to worry about the window.  I insist that I will take care of it, and he nods and smiles.

We make a fire in the backyard, and the remaining crew sits in wooden chairs that I brought to his house as props.  We drink beer and stare at the fire, and Mohannad tells stories about classes he taught, and films that he loves.  Sarah Martens laughs, and smoke rises into the darkness.  Tomorrow we will drive to Lake City to shoot the remaining scenes on my parent’s sailboat, Solitude.  Before I leave for the night, I check to see that the Triumph is secure in the garage (though it wouldn’t start anyway).  I say, ‘adios,’ and as I drive home, I feel elated as I get every green light.  Having made it this far, I feel like a giant, somehow making history with colleagues who will one day reflect on this experience, with fondness from leather chairs and smoking jackets, as they introduce classic films on AMC.  I daydream about dying in a terrible car wreck, and wonder what would happen to my film if I went down up flames right now.  Would it get finished?  How would it end up without me involved?  Would it fizzle or be pushed through?  Would it be better?  All these crazy thoughts, but the bottom line is– I did it!

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Director’s Journal: Day 16

Tuesday, Day 16.

The sixteenth day of shooting Triumph67 is a dream.  We pull into the parking lot of the Lock and Dam under the Ford Bridge, and the breeze and air feel great.  It’s an easy enough scene.  Sami takes photos of Mohannad.  We’ve been here before for B Roll, but today is cooler, and the air pressure feels comfortably high.  The shots look great, and nobody bothers us.  Actor Kareem Aal’s 4 year-old son gets a cameo, and the shot is rather touching.  Soon a barge approaches, and we get an epic shot of the vessel moving past Mohannad as he stares off into the distance.

With time to spare, I decide to take the small crew to one of my favorite local breakfast joints, Victor’s 1959 Café.  I order the Dia y Noche, and a cup of coffee.  I also get a side of Yuca fries, which I dunk into catsup with Tabasco sauce.   We laugh and talk about the shoot, and Jeremy tells stories about lucrative photo shoots with models who make $10,000 a session.  I wash down a twinge of jealousy with a large swig of scalding hot coffee, and leave a respectable tip.

The rest of the afternoon is spent in the producer’s brother’s apartment in South Minneapolis, which doubles as the Aziz family flat in London.  It is filled with antique furniture, and I watch on pins and needles as Guy Harrison, Gaffer, backs into a priceless vase.  It wobbles, but doesn’t fall.  Esam Aal and Nadia Phelps play the Aziz parents, and we shoot a handful of scenes on what is left of our supply of Super8 Kodak film.  The store had completely run out, so we had to be very economical with our real film, which we shot with for the memory sequences.  Esam and Nadia do a wonderful job, and with the last 30 seconds of film, we grab the biggest scene of the day, Sami Aziz return home from Palestine to a surprise party.  Nadia’s little daughter get’s a cameo, and charms everyone on set.

After filming, Mohannad’s mom makes the cast and crew a feast, and we eat in the back yard.  We break out some perfumed Vodka, and I spend some time talking with our wonderful PA, Rami Azzazi.  We talk about Socialism, as the sun slips lower.  For the first time since we began shooting, I drive home before it is completely dark.

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Director’s Journal: Day 15

Monday, Day 15.

Day fifteen begins at my Alma mater, dear old Macalester College, in St. Paul, MN.  We set up shop in the Art Department, where I majored in Fine Arts about nine years ago.  Earlier in the year, when I called Macalester looking for suitable lecture halls for the scene where Flora projects slides onto the wall, I was already set on the particular hall in the Art Department where I had studied Art History.  I got a small tour of lecture halls, but decided on the somewhat dreary hall in Janet Wallis.  In the nine years since I graduated in 2000, three of my favorite art professors have died–Gabriele Ellertson, Don Celender, and Jerry Rudquist.  Jerry Rudquist had been my advisor.  He was a laid back man with a goatee and huge bags under his eyes from the chemicals in mixing paints over the years.  He was very friendly, but I don’t remember much else about his class, even though painting was the focus of my major.  What I do remember about him was his fascination with a girl that I dated briefly in college named Niki.  She was his assistant if memory serves, and would mix paints in his office beneath the stairs leading up to the second floor of the studio.  I remember one rainy night’s drive down to the river in my dad’s old Dodge Caravan.  The windows were fogged up a bit, and we were awkwardly kissing and fumbling around, as 20 year-olds do.  It was late spring, and past 9:30 at night.  It was dark, and I remember getting a funny feeling, almost as if… someone was watching me!  I glanced up from reclining position and saw… Jerry Rudquist, baggy eyes and all, staring at us through the car window!  I think maybe he was walking his dog, and stopped to glance through the window, but I don’t remember the details.  I don’t remember if we hunkered down and waited for him to leave us, or if we bolted.  He never mentioned it, which I’m sure I was relieved about, but I don’t remember much else about that time.

Don Celender, who also passed away after I graduated, was well known for teaching wonderful classes that were highly accessible to non-art majors.  They were also easy to get an A in, and filled up quickly for those who were less artistically inclined, but needed to satisfy the requirement for the Liberal Arts degree that Macalester provided.

Gabriele Ellertson, who taught drawing at Macalester, was my first Art professor.  She was an older, German woman with a thick accent.  She taught me about perspective, and that if I was going to draw a person, never to use a photo.  She explained that it was better to use the real thing.  She brought in nude models, who would set up shop in the middle of the class, disrobe, and pose for a few minutes, before shifting to a new pose.  A small space heater would blow hot hair on them (remember, most of the year in Minnesota is frigid), and I made a point to always attend these sessions.  I was very fond of Gabriele, and went to her memorial show at the Macalester Gallery after she died of cancer.

Today, we set up the slides of the Faiyum funeral paintings, and project them onto the white wall, facing the sloping rows of shining, black wooden chairs.  Sarah Martens reads her lines, and we get what we need.  I say adieu to Macalester, and as we leave some of the interns bump into their classmates, and chatter for a while.  Macalester had been good to me.

Around noon, we return to Kareem’s home to resume shooting, where we are scheduled to shoot day for night, with heavy cardboard taped up to the outside windows to prevent the sun from coming in.  When we arrive, we discover that a thunderstorm the previous night has soaked the cardboard and gaffer tape, causing much of it to fall down.  Guy Harrison, Gaffer, spends about an hour replacing the cardboard, and we shoot some dramatic sequences in the living room with Mohannad and Sarah.  We set up the camera in one of the few places it will fit in the room, and get the shot we are looking for.  A long and challenging shot follows, in which Sarah must balance painfully on the arches of her feet, and she kneels to close a suitcase.  We do this repeatedly, and finally get it right.

It gets late, and a scene comes up where one of the producers and I try to convince Mohannad to improvise a scene where he tells Flora a story about love.  Without quite realizing it, exhaustion as crept up on us, and Mohannad becomes very angry about the last minute change.  There is some tension between us, but I quickly decide not to push the matter.  We wrap up shooting a couple of scenes with Adam and Mohannad.  My drive home is noted with the feeling of inevitable closure just around the corner.  I park in my garage, and kill the engine.  In the quiet of the night, I turn the key the rest of the way, and the radio shuts off.  In the silence of the still garage, the windows of my car have already started to fog over, but Jerry Rudquist is nowhere to be found.  I sigh.  At some point I am going to need an audience.

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Director’s Journal: Day 14

Sunday, Day 14.

I spend the morning trying to convince Sara Abdelaal to skip her prior engagement to come to the shoot.  I‘m not sure how it came to this, but I find myself in this situation, none the less.  I leave a couple messages on her phone, and finally hear through the grapevine that she plans on being on location as scheduled.  We are shooting at an antique shop called Odds and Ends on Nicollet Avenue near 42nd street.  When I scouted the location several weeks earlier, Terry, the owner, took me down to the basement and showed me his extensive antique collection not on display.  I noticed a dark room enlarger, which he said we could borrow for the film, and which appears in the darkroom sequences.  Thanks Terry.  We arrive at the shop, and I am shocked as the thin and mild mannered Terry moves huge couches single handedly out of our way.  You get a knack for it, he tells us.

We shoot the scenes at hand, and struggle with traffic noise and lighting issues from passing cars reflecting from the street.  Sara shows up and we shoot her scene with Adam.  My girlfriend’s mom and sister are shot as extras, and we throw in some of our interns for good measure.

Following the shoot at the rug shop we return to Kareem’s home to shoot the dinner sequence.  With careful calculation, we mark off the exact location that the camera must be placed in relationship to the red tagine pot in the center of the table, so that when we cut from one shot to the next, the tagine pot will maintain position throughout.  The scene is challenging but we pull it off with time to spare.  We shoot the pickups, which seem to go smoothly as well, and Adam turns in a nice performance.  Though we have found our pacing, we are exhausted at the end of the night.  Mohannad’s pants keep falling down, so he must pull his belt tighter and tighter to keep them up.  When they sag in spite of the tight belt, it looks as though there is a banana shoved into the back of his trousers.  This gives us a good laugh.  By now, we have given up on the trail mix, and are eating out of a large bag of peanut M&Ms.  We send Jules on an errand to get a bag of Reece’s Pieces, Jeremy’s favorite candy, and burst into hysterical laughter after our last shot of the evening, in which Mohannad is directed to look sternly, down.

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Director’s Journal: Day 13

Saturday, Day 13.

The day goes smoothly, possibly because we are all rejuvenated from a lovely day off, and possibly because there is a strong sense that we’ve crossed into the final bend.  We are at Kareem’s house, and we shoot a comfortable scene with Mohannad, Flora, and Adam at the breakfast table.  The sun shines in beautifully, if not somewhat unevenly, and the orange peels glisten on the table.  The dialogue feels natural today, and I am satisfied.  We work through the day, and arrive at the evening scenes early.  We decide to shoot them Day for Night, with cardboard blocking the windows.  The day ends without incident.  Is it possible we are getting the hang of this?  It still feels hectic, but we stayed on schedule for today’s call sheet, and even caught up on some of the pick up shots that we missed before.

Spirits are high when we call it a night.  As I drive home one of the producers, the topic of conversation turns to the relief we feel after letting go of one of the makeup specialists.   I called and left a message on this individual’s voicemail the night before, letting her know that it wasn’t working out.  It’s hard to fire someone, but continuity and boundary issues made it a necessity.   I watch my colleague walk up the stairs to her apartment, and then drive home through the summer evening, windows down, listening to a Wes Montgomery CD.   I think about my girlfriend, Lisa.  Will she continue to put up with my crazy schedule?  She’s been dealing with it for almost a year.  Wes Montgomery strikes octaves that travel up the neck of his guitar, and I speed home.

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Director’s Journal: My Father’s Advice

Friday, Day Off.

As I look back on the previous two weeks of shooting, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that I have never felt before.  I have found a rhythm to the work, and a method to which it is being completed.  Communication between most of the crew and cast is in healthy functioning order, and the glitches seem to be isolated to certain personalities.  Everyone is working to the limits of their abilities, and I am grateful for their efforts.  I feel very close to Mohannad and Jeremy, and am impressed with effort and creativity that the rest of the crew us brought to the project.

I think about the hundreds and hundreds of hours that went into writing the script, scouting locations, meeting with cast and crew, emailing, and I wonder if it will all be worthwhile given the final product.  The final product, after all, is what everyone else sees.  They don’t see the sweat and tears put in behind the scenes.  They don’t see me driving home way past the middle of the night through all of the seasons of the last year from various collaborations to make this film happen.

I remember one evening last January when I spent all night and well into the early morning trying to bring the script to a place where we could feel confident in presenting it to our colleagues.   At past four in the morning I left my co-writer’s apartment into one of the coldest nights of the year, and entered my car.  My car seemed to be asleep, like I should have been, and I had to wait 20 minutes, hunched over the frozen wheel before the engine was warm enough to even consider pulling out of the space, and the windshield had defrosted enough to see through a small hole that I had etched through to see the road.

We worked so hard on the film, and I need to make sure that no calamities befall us in the last week of shooting.  Again, I think back to last winter when I had approached my family and some of my relatives with the idea of making a movie.  It was shortly after the collapse of the financial system in the U.S., and my father, in particular was very stressed out about the notion of me putting a chunk of money into the making of a movie.  My father, having come to the United States from Poland shortly after World War II, is very sensitive about risk taking.  He acknowledges that this sensitivity was passed down from his parents, survivors of the Holocaust.  I recall the afternoon in which we sat in the living room of my parents’ house, discussing how much it would cost to make this movie.  My parents have always been supportive of me, and very generous with their praise.  They are also realists when it comes to money.  My dad looked me in the eye, and told me that he understood that it was my decision, but told me the right thing to do was also the hardest thing to do: walk away from this movie.

I spend the rest of today catching up on emails, reflecting on my decision to make this film, and how it is going.  I call my family, and try to unwind.  I feel the bulk is behind me, but after this week, what about post-production?  I take the afternoon to try to enjoy this time, and not focus on the unknown entities.  A childish pride has set in, and I’m floating around, with my chest puffed out like a bull frog.  As a Minnesotan, I’m constantly coaching myself to be modest and humble, collaborative and practical.  But in the privacy of my day off, I’m the biggest frog on the lily pad, and I puff myself up with pride… and I puff… and I puff… and I…

What else would you do with your day off?

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Director’s Journal: Day 12

Thursday, Day 12.

Today we are meeting at 5pm in the evening.  With a number of scenes to shoot at night, we decided that it would be best to rest during the day, and come prepared for a night’s work.  I have trouble sleeping much past 7am.  My internal clock forces me up around that time, in spite of the lack of sleep and overall exhaustion from the previous 12 days of shooting.  The day is spent running errands, calling producers, and squabbling over lost props and the keys to the apartment that we rented earlier in the week.

The evening comes, and the crew arrives on location in a lackadaisical haze.  There is a certain malaise that has befallen the group, probably from last nights ridiculous hours after an already long week of shooting, and the heat that we have been enduring in the dog days of summer.  I gather the crew for a pep talk, and we begin to run around, preparing for the evening.  Producer Mohannad’s Ghawanmeh’s teenage sister, Aman, has been assisting with wardrobe, food prep, and general tasks at hand.  She is full of energy, and seems to be one of the only one of us who isn’t affected by the schedule.  She is assisting Waiel Safwat, Assistant Director.  She yells out, “Quiet on the set!” and inspires me.

Twilight falls quickly, and soon it is dark.  We are trying to shoot a particularly heavily choreographed scene in the kitchen, and are struggling.  Sarah Martens is particularly tired, and she is having a hard time staying awake in front of the camera.  I turn to talk to Jeremy, and notice that he looks like the walking dead.  Large dark circles have formed under his eyes, and his flesh clings to his skin, like a cancer patient.  Jeremy is very lactose intolerant, and though Fatima has been cooking largely vegan dishes, Jeremy has had to abstain from many of the junky treats brought in to sustain us.  Jeremy rubs his eyes as the hour creeps past midnight, and I turn to the living room to notice half of the interns sleeping on the couches.  Mohannad seems awake enough, and we shoot over a sequence over and over again where he delivers a line, followed with a chuckle. After the tenth take the chuckle has brought much of the crew to giggles, and I stifle my own laughter, pinching myself to keep quiet.

We shoot most of a challenging scene in the kitchen with Mohannad and Adam, and try in vain numerous times to coordinate a motion where the two actors spin around from the counter, pause, and bring some pita with feta cheese to their mouths.  Though Kareem had a secret stash of high quality Holyland feta in the fridge, the props coordinator had bought more affordable feta for use in case of multiple takes.  Mohannad and Adam stuff mouthful after mouthful of the cheap-shit feta into their faces, and before long Mohannad is cursing at the stuff.  We have a good laugh, and keep trying to get the shot.

At one point I look at the monitor, and wonder out loud whether the shot is in focus.  I consult with Jeremy, and he insists that it is in focus.  We go back and forth for a couple minutes about the issues, and it becomes clear that we can’t go on for much longer.

Sarah is having trouble delivering her lines with any clarity, and patience is wearing treacherously thin.  Waiel has long since given up eyeing me over running behind schedule, and only Aman seems tireless as she yells, “Quiet on the set!”

We shoot as much as we can, and finally decide that we have gotten far enough to justify calling it a night.  It is around 2am.  Upstairs, Julie Gaynin is logging info into the computer about the scenes we shot in previous days, and I am engaged in a discussion that feels more like an argument with one of the producers about not having a chance to review the dailies.  There doesn’t seem to be the time or the energy to spend another hour looking at what we shot at the end of such brutal days.

In spite of the exhaustion and difficulties, there is a sense of accomplishment with what we have done to this point that is contagious.  It has been growing ever since we made it through the first day.  That evening I drive Adam Elsafy back to his home in North East Minneapolis.  Adam is a 15 year-old actor who has been in a couple plays, and whom Kitty discovered at a casting call session for another director’s project.  He is a diligent young man, very serious, and intense.  I feel tremendously guilty that I have kept him out so late, but he seems easy going about the schedule.  Unlike the other 15 year-old actor in the film, Ali, who plays Mohannad in the memory sequences, Adam is serious about wanting to act, and pursue a career down that path.  It is well past 2 in the morning, and I get lost trying to get onto the highway.  We talk about how the film is going, and about the process of movie making.  Adam is considering transferring from his high school to an Arts school, and I encourage the decision.  What are the chances for success if one goes down the path of the arts, I wonder?  As I turn down the dark street leading to his house, I thank him for his professionalism, and tell him that he will go far.

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Director’s Journal: Day 11

Wednesday, Day 11.

The scenes slated for today’s shoot have worried me for a while.  We haven’t had much time to rehearse, particularly with Mohannad and Adam.  I arrive at Kareem’s home at 8am, and we set up the first shot.  The performances feel a bit awkward, but I feel the relentless pressure to move forward, knowing full well that if I get stuck on this scene, which is not one of my favorites anyway, the later scenes will be rushed, and I’ll be kicking myself.  This is one of the lessons learned so far; in the future, schedule more reasonable days.

Eventually we get a take that I am satisfied with, and we move on to scenes that I am more comfortable with.  A great deal of time and effort is given to the careful staging of every shot in this film.  Since the camera doesn’t move, the entrance and exit of actors in and out of each frame up has to be precise, and the focus needs to be planned carefully, since there is no follow focus.  This approach is based somewhat on Yasujiro Ozu’s philosophy toward film.  Ozu’s practice revolved around minimal movements, strict and careful planning of choreography and placement of objects in shots, and transitional sequences linking scenes together that indicate an ellipsis of time.  In the year leading up to the making of Triumph67 I discovered the films of Ozu, and my thinking about film hasn’t been the same, since.  My discovery of Ozu led me to the films of Bresson, Dreyer, Lubitsch, and more contemporary film makers, including the films of Wim Wenders, whose work I had loved for several years, ever since Paris Texas and Wings of Desire.   But to me, nobody did it like Ozu.  So steady in his conviction of characters in space and pacing.  So universal in themes of family and the transiency of life and its cycles.

Recently I had dinner with by brother who was meeting a friend of his who is currently in a PhD program in LA for film studies.  He described Ozu being to white rice, as Kurosawa is to red wine.  I love Kurosawa.  From Ikaru to Rhapsody in August.  But Ozu reminds me of my grandparents.

When Ozu’s mother died, shortly before he died himself after completing his final masterpiece, An Autumn Afternoon, he in his diary: “Spring has arrived. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Here I am agonizing over An Autumn Afternoon. Like torn rags, the cherry blossoms display a forlorn expression – sake tastes bitter as gall.” I worry that being stuck on Ozu often leaves me spending too much time on the details of objects in the foreground and background.  I can’t help myself.  Once you unlock the mystery behind Ozu, it is almost impossible not to see opportunities in every situation, and wonder, What Would Ozu Do?

The scenes in the upstairs are shot in the middle of the day, but thick cardboard is placed on the outside windows to give the illusion of night.  I ask the gaffer to make Adam’s room look blue, trying to emulate the look that Ozu achieved in An Autumn Afternoon with his lead actress when she retreated to her bedroom.  After 45 minutes, the room is blue, and we shoot the scene.  I get into a snit over what props to use in one of the final scenes of the evening with one of the producers.  The argument is over a tee shirt that says, ‘London.’  I am convinced that it looks like it came from Target, but after a while, I decide to back down.

It’s been a good days work.  When I go home, it is late, and it seems my Lisa has forgiven me for being so absent.  She herself seems a bit absent, but who can blame her, it is well past 2am, and she is fast asleep.  I try to talk to her through her sleep for a minute, but abandon the effort when there is no response.  What Would Ozu Do?  Poor chap.  He couldn’t help me there.  He died single.

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Director’s Journal: Day 10

Tuesday, Day 10.

I wake up and stare at the call sheet.  We have to be at the University of St. Thomas radio station, KUST at 9am.  Sara Abdelaal is Program Director, or some big name there, and has offered to let us shoot the scene there.  The actors and crew amble in on the late side, and I don’t say anything.  They are all working hard and are tired from the previous night’s work.  Parking is almost as terrible as traffic, and there is a bunch of construction around campus.

We’ve been having trouble with one of the makeup crew-members.  All of them do a wonderful job, except for the one who shows up early to St. Thomas.  Unscheduled.  In fact, we had removed her from the schedule after she made several continuity errors in makeup and hair, and seemed to have trouble finding the right look and pacing for our project.   But she’s here now, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Our Assistant Director has the morning off, and we are already behind schedule.

The radio station proves to be a challenging place to shoot.  There is a lot of noise from the room next door, and we finally get Sara Abdelaal to ask him to turn down his radio.  We spend the next three hours trying to shoot a scene that seemed to go so smoothly in rehearsal, but proved more challenging on location than expected.

Finally we arrive at the scene where Mohannad recites the words of the beautiful poem by Darwish.  He realizes that he doesn’t have the wardrobe that he needs, and we spend the next 30 minutes trying to figure out what to do.  Finally he begrudgingly borrows a shirt from Nabil Amra, who plays a fast talking radio guy.  Mohannad is furious with himself for forgetting the shirt, and even more annoyed that we don’t have the manpower to have safeguards in place to assure that such a thing doesn’t happen.  Ahhh, indie film making woes.

After the radio station we bring a small crew and a few actors to Minnehaha Falls.  At the last minute, or bid for a permit doesn’t come through, so we decide to take our chances.  As we unload camera gear and Arab actors, dressed, one in a black suit, and the other in a linen shirt and ponytail, a squad car drives across the grass slowly, pausing about a hundred yards from us.  We all try to look nonchalant, and miraculously the squad car pulls away.  I wonder what could have been more unnerving to a police officer than Mohannad, but my attention quickly turns to the weather.  It looks as if it is beginning to drizzle.  We make our way down to the falls, and shoot a couple key shots of Mohannad and Sami walking down the steps.  It looks great, and we prepare for the shot with dialogue.  It just so happens that the falls is completely dry due to the drought, and it is eerily quiet.  I had been worried about recording the audio, competing with the crashing falls, but we really lucked out in that regard.  Earlier in the summer I had shot a little B Roll at the falls, and had grabbed what we needed to feature the lovely look of water.

With small droplets of rain beginning to fall, we quickly set up the shot with Mohannad and Sami, talking by the falls.  Kareem delivers a killer performance, and I stupidly interrupt him halfway through when I think that he has botched a line.  I kick myself when I realize that his deviation from the script had been intentional and utterly beautiful.  I have him repeat the scene, and he matches the enormity of the first performance.  Cut.  Print!

The rain clouds pass, and we pack up and go to Hidden Falls across the river road.  We luck out with some gorgeous magic hour sun, and end with a handful of cutaways of Mohannad and Flora that I have a funny feeling will come in handy later.  Flora’s yellow coat glows in the setting sun of the magic hour, and we spend 25 minutes shooting the beautiful light, glowing through her coat.

DSC_0597When we have what we need, we take a few minutes to play at the lovely overlook point a few blocks from the Hidden Falls entryway.  The cast and crew seem happy and relaxed, somehow.  One of the actors, Emilia Aghamirzai (who plays Mohannad’s girlfriend) is leaving tomorrow for acting school in New York.  We wish her well, and the gaffer gives her a piggyback ride.

We have a quick ice cream cone at Dairy Queen, and I listen to the interns’ stories about studying abroad, and their impressions of the world.  I remember when I was a student at Macalester.  Holed up in the art department, painting for hours.  Rocking in the basement of the New Hall with my band, Exempt from Death.  Feeling isolated and lost my senior year, wondering what I would do with my life.  I hope these young adults follow their dreams, and never let anything stand in their way.  I wonder if that’s what I did, or if I’m just fooling myself into thinking anything is possible.  I drive home having crossed the halfway point.

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 10

Director’s Journal: Day 9

Monday, Day 9.

It’s supposed to be hot today.  Luckily, we are moving to a new location: star Kareem Aal’s home, where we will shoot the majority of the rest of our film.  This move is reason for some celebration.  Moving locations is hard, and we’ve made it through the majority of moves.  So it should all be smooth sailing, right?

The first scene of the day requires Mohannad to pull up to Flora’s house on the Triumph.  This morning I ride the Triumph to Kareem’s home, only about 12 minutes from my house.  Though I took the motorcycle safety class earlier this summer, and my dad is a doctor and has warned me many times of the number of quadriplegics that make their way through the ER, I decide not to wear the helmet that Lisa bought me for my birth day.  I feel like a criminal riding without the helmet, but make it there without incident.  I park the bike outside of Kareem’s home, and begin to prepare the yard for the shoot.

With everything and everyone set up for the first shot, Mohannad is in wardrobe and makeup, and ready to do his big scene: pulling up to the house on the Triumph.  After fortyfive minutes of finagling the bike to start, it finally roars to life, and we are ready.  Mohannad does the maneuver about 8 times, until we finally give up, and decide to use the one where he looks least likely to flop over.  We spend the next several minutes trying to shoot him lowering the kickstand, which, by itself, is a lot harder than it looks to perform in a fluid, filmic motion.

As the next several scenes unwind, a construction crew sets up across the street and begins hammering roofing tiles, with what sounds like a sledgehammer.  The next couple of hours are spent trying to steal a shot or two in between hammering and the sound of airplanes taking off from the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport.  Miraculously we get what we need, but always by the skin of our teeth, it seems.

The early evening turns into a mad rush to get shoot before the sun sets in the backyard.  The sound of the planes has subsided, but the rush to get a choreographed sequence of Mohannad talking to some of Adam’s friends takes longer than anticipated.  I hear myself losing my patience, and start to sound frantic.  I know this isn’t helping, but the set has set twenty-five minutes ago, and we’re trying to shoot a scene in the backyard that should look like high noon.

Change of plans, we shoot the rest of the scene at night.  Sun has set, so to solve the lighting problem, someone has the idea of building a fire in IKEA fire pit.  It does a fine job of lighting the actors, and we push back some of the other scenes for a later time, whenever that might be.  I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge our wonderful production manager again, Ericka Glenn.  When we pushed scenes back, she would miraculously fit them in to the schedule, usually on her laptop at about 3 or four in the morning.  She would then email the entire cast and crew with the call sheet for the following day.  I don’t know how she did it, but I thank her now.

It was getting so late that we decided it was time for another, unplanned meal.  We ordered pizza, and nobody complained, though it was hot, sweaty, and I knew people were getting tired of the mosquitoes, and exhausting hours.  We shot a couple more scenes, this time in the garage in the back of the house, including some more very awkward sequences with the ill-performing fire kites, and then I called it a night.   When everyone had left, I hauled the Triumph into Kareem’s garage.  Kareem had prepared a plate of delicious aperitifs consisting of olives, pita, feta, pickled peppers, and garlic stuffed eggplants.  It was the first of many plates he would prepare for us in hours of total darkness.

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 9
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