Director’s Journal: Postproduction, Part 1

Postproduction.  What would it mean for Triumph67?

We wrapped production of Triumph67 in early August of 2009.  Immediately after production, the producers sat down and bludgeoned our way through numerous meetings on how to proceed into post-production.  The first question at hand was how we would approach finding the right editor.  The three of us producing at the time deliberated for several weeks to determine the best approach, often coming up against disagreement.  We eventually landed on an interview process in which we would figure out who would be the best candidate for the role of editor.

After all the fuss, two editors (including Jeremy Wilker, who was the director of photography) were available to meet to interview.  We met with both, and both seemed quite capable.  After a couple weeks we chose Jeremy Wilker to edit the picture.  Being new to filmmaking, I hadn’t heard until recently that conventional wisdom frowned upon the cinematographer editing the film, but our budget, needs, and personal experience with Jeremy left us most confident with him for the job.  We decided that I would co-edit (also frowned upon amongst the traditional approach to filmmaking), and we began meeting at his home in Golden Valley.

It was the end of summer, and we worked in the shared home office space with Jeremy’s wife Meghan.   Eventually we would move to the basement where Jeremy set up a makeshift office where there would be more room and less distraction.  We worked on Jeremy’s two year-old Mac Book Pro, and viewed the progress on an external monitor.  We backed up all of our data on various external hard drives, and used Final Cut Pro to edit.  In our first couple of sessions we crafted an unofficial trailer for our wrap party.  Jeremy’s wife, Meghan gave us some brutal but much needed feedback, and we ended up scrapping the original for a second trailer that worked significantly better.  We set it to a Nick Drake song for ambiance.  The wrap party trailer was a success, and set a mood for the film that we felt was appropriate.

The next couple of sessions were spent projecting all of our developed Super8 footage in Jeremy’s projection room, where we captured the projected Super8 footage on Jeremy’s Sony EX3.  We discovered that the capturing of this footage looked brighter and better without the adapted lenses.  We went through somewhat of a hassle trying to figure out the best way to shoot it, and in the process, Jeremy’s projector bulb blew.  Luckily I had mine (the one that appears in the film), and we successfully were able to move all of out Super8 into Final Cut.  This was satisfying, and opened up a new palette for us to paint our picture with; the soft and chunky, fluid images from the real-life film camera.

We began editing the project based on the script into a large, rough file.  The idea was to construct each scene as it appeared in the script, and then come back for adjustments afterward.  The method to our approach always involved Jeremy at the keyboard, and me at the script.  From our three week shoot in July, the handful of days we shot B Roll, and the handful of days we shot Super8 before summer, we had over 20 hours of footage to work with, half of which had been organized with descriptions and notes of which take was best by the interns from during our production period.  This helped us move a bit quicker, but we still often looked through other takes not marked as suitable to weave scenes together when complications arose.  Overall, most of the footage came together well, and it quickly became clear which scenes were working with minimal scrutiny, and which needed a lot of thought and resources.

We spotted numerous minor production errors, many of which were fixable with CGI.  It turned out the Jeremy was a total wiz with visual manipulation of images.  It helped that almost all of our film was shot with a stationary camera, no pans or tilts, dolly shots or zooms.  Jeremy’s prior experience with photo manipulation and technical prowess, along with both of our imaginations opened numerous doors toward supporting the illusion of reality.  Time and again, we saved shots and made up new ones from what we had that was well beyond expectation.

Looking back, I entered into the process holding my breath, not sure if we would be on the same page when it came to pacing, use of B Roll as transitional space, or willingness to “kill our babies,” which describes the reluctance of someone who is intimately involved in shooting a film to eliminate favorite shots that don’t work in the context of the larger film.  I was amazed as to how much we saw eye to eye, and I wondered if the process for deciding wasn’t partly due to the limited choices we had, or if it was because we were on the same wavelength in regards to what the story called for.  In either case, I enjoyed my days with Jeremy immensely, and though editing cut my weekends in half month after month, the time spent was certainly entertaining and enlightening.

Our first rough cut was completed, and we decided to call our intern and script supervisor, James Jannicelli for a viewing and feedback session.  We made it through the cut, which was well over two hours, and immediately realized we had to make significant cuts on numerous levels.  The next several months involved making increasingly hard decisions (but never in disagreement) about what could go, and what couldn’t.  In this period we also began reworking the scenes, eliminating our weaker material, and doing everything that responsible editors should do.  But responsible to what standards?  Hollywood?  Independent film?  Art film?  We decided to be responsible to the mood that had been cultivated.  At times we questioned the clarity of the story, and often to juggled how much we could take out without losing clarity.

Toward the end of the winter, I bought a full HD camera, and the necessary lenses to shoot beautiful filmic shots with adjustable levels of depth of field.  I was able to schedule additional time to shoot some inserts that we missed during production, including a few close ups of hands, some B Roll, and whatever else I could do to help enrich the film.  This process was wonderful for me, since it forced me to learn the skills needed to shoot film-like footage with a digital camera, at a standard of quality that met our requirements.  After becoming proficient on the camera, I scheduled pickup shots (second unit type stuff) with actors.  I shot some close-ups of Flora’s and Mohannad’s hands, some fire kites, and some scenery.  We integrated this second unit material into the project, and it helped quite a bit.  At the same time, I began recording ADR with the actors, syncing up cleaner and better vocal performances where it was necessary.  Several scenes were dramatically improved following this process, and the actors were very gracious, many coming in almost a year after production to re-record some of their dialogue.

The summer had returned, following a long winter and spring, of editing on most Sunday’s and whenever we could squeeze in additional time.  Anxieties and impatience for completing the project became part of the factor in the editing process.  The fact was, we had been editing for almost a year, and had sacrificed a lot of time as a labor of love.   But our love for the film was competing with paid work, weekends with family and friends, and time to ourselves.  I had become a regular fixture in Jeremy’s home, tromping through the house to the bathroom, taking Jeremy into the basement for ten-hour days.  Jeremy’s two year-old son thought I was part of the family.  He was speaking my name after a while.  The time away from his family was hard on Jeremy, and it was hard on his family.  This is the biggest price of the independent film; the sacrifices of the people in the real world for the ones on the screen.

Since our meetings at the beginning of the summer, Jeremy had become an equal producer, and we were making business decisions together on how to proceed with everything form completing editing, to building connections facebook and twitter.  Deadlines were nearing, and we needed to make hard decisions about rushing for the deadlines, or going at our current pace, in which the end always seemed near, but never seemed to come.  After some meetings between producers, we decided that we had to finish the film in time for the deadlines.  We made a number of interim deadlines, which addressed all of the creative and technical steps that needed to be reached before we could submit to festivals, and set about putting those into action.

We had a small group feedback session with Kitty Aal, Associate Producer, including Melody Gilbert and her husband, Mohannad Ghawanmeh, Producer, and Clever Kate who was working with us on PR.  We showed an almost completed film, and got some mixed feedback, which widely varied from person to person.  I was surprised to find that Melody’s husband (a sports writer for the Star Tribune), caught almost every subplot of the story, vague as they were.  Melody told us to rework the middle section, and rely more on what she considered our film’s strengths: Mohannad’s memory sequences and the poet narration that he delivered so beautifully.  I was most nervous about what Kitty would think, as I have been in collaboration with her longer than anyone else involved on this project, but she surprised me by not lambasting the film.  Our confidence was greatly improved after this feedback session, but none confidence improved more than Mohannad, who was a self-proclaimed nervous wreck at the onset of the viewing, since so much of the film revolved around his character.

Though Melody suggested we take a few weeks to work out the middle section, we decided to stay on schedule to meet the festival submission deadlines.  We only had one more scheduled day to edit, and did our best to interpret and address the feedback provided, along with preparing the film for the next stages: sound and color.  We locked picture late at night, and I drove home feeling like I did my best.  A film doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  There are deadlines and all sorts of constraints that factor in to when it will be considered finished.  If I sat on the film for another year, then would it be finished?

So we locked picture, and called Dominic Hanft who began mixing the sound and sweetening the rough spots.  We called Reid Kruger at Waterbury Music, and he agreed to squeeze us in to his packed schedule in order to finish a score by the deadline.  At the same time, we dropped our picture off at Crash and Sues, and they began the process of color correction.

Part 2: Coming Soon

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Postproduction | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Postproduction, Part 1
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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.

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Director’s Journal: Day 8

Sunday, Day 8.

I wake up with what feels like a healthy mix of anxiety and ambition.  It is my brother’s birthday, and I leave a message in the car on my way to Uptown where our real-life doctor/actress has offered an office at her clinic where we can shoot the examination sequence.  Happy birthday, to you.  I hang up and park.  Dena Gad, a beautiful and talented actress, also happens to be a doctor, and fit the role of Doctor El Fouley in ways that our script hadn’t anticipated.  In rehearsal, I quickly realized that there could be a subtle undercurrent of chemistry between Dr. El Fouley and Sami Aziz, where there had been none before (the role of Doctor El Fouley was originally written for a man).

The clinic is more comfortable than ideal, due to the loud air conditioning system, but it looks great, so we go for it.  The scenes are shot fairly easily (save loading all the gear, lights and boxes into the second story building).

After the clinic scene we drive to my neighborhood where the owners of a new café called Stabby’s have graciously allowed us to schedule filming.  The location wasn’t secured until a week before shooting, so we were relieved to get permission.  Note to self: patronize Stabby’s more often.

We arrive there, and begin setting up.  It is a bit of a nightmare, because bright sun keeps shifting position in the sky, and glaring through the window in erratic patterns.  The wind from outside beats the awning against itself, causing a loud thumping noise.  The coolers in the back holding all of the food, buzz loudly, the radio and phone create a lot of background noise.  It takes about 2 hours to dampen the noise to a small roar, and then we begin shooting.

At some point I run to my car to grab something from the truck, and bag my shin against something concrete.  I limp away, hoping that nothing is broken.  Fuck!  I scream, in my head.

One of the producers has graciously made a delicious meal, and the crew eats, quietly.  After that, we shoot a couple final scenes, and prepare to call it a night.  In tearing down the dampening Styrofoam used to eliminate buzz from the cooler, a large strip of paint came off the wall with the tape.  Somewhat afraid, I approach Mr. Stabby, who is next door on the patio, drinking cheap beer.  I tell him about the mishap and he assures me not to worry.  The producers have temporarily made peace with one another, and I drive the Ericka Glenn, Production Manager home, back to her Uptown apartment.  I thank her again for her wonderful work in preparing such marvelous call sheets, and let her off on the corner by her apartment.  I drop off the last producer, and make my way back toward Stabby’s where I live, about six blocks from the café.

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | 1 Comment

Director’s Journal: Day 7

Saturday, Day 7.

Day arrives, and almost by surprise we are moving our set to an apartment that we rented for a day from the tenant of our Light Man, Jason Blumenthal.  There is a bit of annoying drama involving getting into the apartment, which takes up way too much energy considering the task at hand: complete everything that’s on the schedule for this location without screwing up.  After all, we only have the apartment for a day.

The apartment doubles as three locations, and we steadily set up shots, shoot, and tear down props and lights.  Throughout, we wait patiently as the upstairs tenants chop the head off a large pig, and butcher it into smaller, consumable pieces.  All of the chopping makes it difficult to record the dialogue, and we waste about three hours.  Finally, the upstairs tenants quiet down, and we get some difficult scenes knocked out, as the temperature in the apartment climbs well up into the high eighties.

We continue work, including a vast effort to shoot a night scene in the middle of the day, in which Guy Harrison, Gaffer, blocks all the sun off from the outside of the apartment so it looks dark outside.  Wow.  At one point there is a squabble between Producers about how to pull of some of the upcoming scenes.  Normally I am very tolerant to ideas, but noticing the rate at which time is slipping away, I make a firm decision and it doesn’t sit well with the producer.  I’ll have to attempt to smoothen out the exchange later, but there is really no time to perseverate over options now.  I wonder where Waiel is… Typically it is the Assistant Director’s job to protect the Director from distractions.  I wonder if our pro-bono arrangement is starting to effect motivation.  Stay positive.  Everyone is doing their best.  I tell myself this as sweat pours down my face, and the dark circles under my eyes begin to pulsate.

At one point, we race to set up a shot in time to grab a bit of natural sunlight pouring through a window onto Mohannad.  Miraculously we grab the shot, moments before the sun disappears for the rest of the day.

We work long and hard, and the evening arrives.  The work continues, and I start to battle against an urge to just call it a night, and try to fix what we don’t have in editing.  Jeremy Wilker, Cinematographer, preservers, and delivers a diligent effort, grabbing B Roll that I almost would have forgotten.

The end of the night comes, and we have what we need in the can.  I return home, wondering if I’ll make it through week two.  On the way, I listen to the radio: a story about starvation and lack of medical necessities in Gaza.

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Director’s Journal: Day Off

Friday, Day Off.

The producers decided that Friday’s would be our days off in the shooting schedule.  Taking off a normal weekend day like Saturday or Sunday wouldn’t make sense, since, most people have the weekend off, and it was easier to schedule people to show up on set when they don’t have to take time off from work.

On my day off, I decide to accompany my brother on an excursion to Banana Republic.  Lisa is working, after all, and I feel guilty knowing full well that I am going to miss his birthday party while I’m shooting, coming up in two days.  I already missed my mom’s birthday party.  Sacrifices keep mounting…

So we are standing in the Southdale Banana Republic, and my brother is looking at green sweaters, when my phone rings.  It is Jeremy Wilker, Cinematographer, telling me not to panic yet, but we may have lost some of yesterday’s work from a faulty data card.

The next twenty minutes consist of me pacing back and forth in Banana Republic, praying that we didn’t lose anything irreplaceable, and hoping that we wouldn’t be thrust too far behind schedule to recover.  Jeremy tells me that he was up all night trying to recover the data.  What a way to spend your one, day off.

The rest of the day is a blur, but I later receive a call from Jeremy telling me we have saved nearly all of the data by way of the last ditch effort of recover that seems to have payed off.  What did we lose?  A shot of Sasha looking out of her truck.  Some clouds.  A nights sleep, and a trip to Banana Republic.

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Director’s Journal: Day 6

Thursday, Day 6.

When the alarm goes off in the morning of the sixth day of shooting, I pounce from the bed, somehow trained to be in attack mode.  I’ve been working on all cylinders for almost a week now, and my body is used to the strain and constant adrenaline.  I keep having grandiose thoughts about myself directing this film, which I try to reject quickly in an effort not to become an asshole.  I haven’t buckled under the pressure yet, and I’m almost a third of the way through the three-week shoot.  My girlfriend and I had a small fight earlier in the week when I returned well past one in the morning.  She has been a great sport in putting up with my ridiculous schedule over the past year in preparing for the film, but she is worried now.  Is it sustainable?  Will I keel over?  Is it possible that she needs more attention than I have been giving her over the last few weeks?  The other night when I returned home I remember stumbling into the dark kitchen, opening a Tupperware of pasta, and mindlessly eating nearly the whole thing, trying in vain to consume a small percentage of calories that I have burned in this tremendous undertaking.  I remember finding Lisa awake in her downstairs office, and noticing that she was completely fed up with me.  Near tears, I begged her to put up with it for a couple more weeks.  Please, I told her… Just believe in me.  I felt like a little boy, who needed his mommy to hug him and tell him that she believes in him.  Lisa’s put up with a lot.  I gotta think of some way to make it up to her.  Problem is, she doesn’t like flowers, and all diamonds are blood diamonds.

So today’s shoot is coming up in a half an hour and I am looking in my bathroom mirror.  I have probably lost about five pounds since beginning this shoot.  I have dark circles under my eyes, and I barely recognize myself.  I put on my most professional black shirt (Haynes, from Target), and slip on the shorts that Mohannad gifted me a couple weeks earlier when we were working out wardrobe options.  They fit now, for the first time.

I arrive at Mohannad’s house early, to find his mom already cooking for the day’s schedule.  I ask if he is awake, and she tells me to go upstairs.  I call out his name, and wander up the staircase that we have already shot several times.  I arrive in his room.  The alarm blasts NPR, and I enter.  Mohannad is lying in the bed, completely naked.  I let him know that I am setting up downstairs, and leave him to his morning routine.

The morning’s shoot is a bit stressful, in that we need to set the stage for a funeral reception in Mohannad’s house.  Problem is, we don’t have enough extras though.  I carefully set up the funeral guests (and included Waiel Safwat, Assistant Director as an extra).  We improvise some shots of guests waiting around, and get a wonderful shot of Fatima (Mohannad’s mother) preparing a traditional lamb dish that is served at Palestinian funerals.  She also prepares some delicious looking Baklava, and everyone anxiously awaits lunch.  We Set up some shots of Sasha (Sara Abdelaal) in an old red pickup truck I borrowed from the drummer of my band, Bill, and shoot some pretty nice scenes in Mohannad’s Mercedes with Mohannad and Adam (Adam Elsafy).  We are careful to shoot around the parts of Mohannad’s Mercedes that were damaged in the accident he had sometime in the last week.  I sigh to myself and wonder what would have happened if he had been injured, or if his car had been wrecked even worse.  His frantic phone call to me in the morning with the news that he had totaled his car had felt like a drop in the bucket compared to what we were facing in trying to pull off this film… Until I realized that his car was a character in the film to some extent, and that we would have to shoot around the damage, and hope that it could still drive enough to pull off the rest of our scheduled shots.

The end of the day consists of another risky shot.  The camera is balanced high up on top of a car, looking down at a scene in the back of a pickup truck.  Large heavy lights are balanced precariously above Sara Abdelaal, as she does a wonderful job sobbing into her hands.  The next shot captures her lighting a cigarette, and looking thoroughly bad-ass.  Sara is in a cool band called The Claps, and it has been a bit of a hassle trying to coordinate schedules around her shows and trips.  She gives us our money’s worth tonight (albeit nobody is getting paid), and hands in a solid performance though she is surrounded by strangers and asked to cry.

The night’s shoot ends with the making of some fire kites.  We need at least one shot of a flaming newspaper floating gracefully through the sky.  The challenge is to get this shot in keeping with our stable camera motif.  It turns out making fire kites is harder than we thought (almost all of them die before lift off), and capturing the magic also turns out to be tricky.  Finally we get one good shot, and wrap for the night.

I am definitely in the rhythm now.  I go home, have some grapenuts with a banana, and wonder how Jeremy Wilker, Cinematographer, with a three-year-old and one-year-old, is dealing with being away from his family for so long.

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 6

Director’s Journal: Day 5

Wednesday, Day 5.

After the first four days of shooting, I am beginning to feel more confident that I can make this film, more or less, how I intended.  Though we are a little behind schedule, we didn’t fall any further behind yesterday.  The crew is great, the actors are great.  Everyone has a remarkably positive attitude toward being here.  We meet in the morning to sum up how things are going.  We send Jules Ouanes (Assistant Production Manager) to fill a laundry list of supplies.  We are using walkie talkies to communicate throughout the house, and I have established a working rhythm with Waiel Safwat, Assistant Director.  Every fifteen minutes or so he walks past me and gives me the eye.  That means were are falling behind, and I need to motivate people to be done with lights.  Ahhh.  Lights.  Lights take longer than almost any other element of this film.  To get a realistic look inside seems to be what has set us behind.  Still, the shots are coming out looking great.  Now how can I balance great looking shots with falling so far behind…

The days shooting all takes place in the upstairs bedroom of Mohannad’s house.  The first couple hours revolves around removing almost everything from the bed room, and then setting it up to look like Sami’s bedroom.  Needless to say, the 80 degree day quickly makes the upstairs intolerable (Mohannad’s house has no air conditioning).  I send Jules Ouanes back out to buy a fan for the window.  He returns with a fan, and a receipt.  I add it to the growing pile in my pocket, a pile of paper drenched in pocket sweat.  Will I even be able to decipher the printed number later, or will they be melded into a mush from the dampness?  I don’t know.

The scenes look good in the bedroom, overall.  Mohannad does a wonderful job folding sheets.  It is harder to make folding sheets look good than any of us anticipated.  Makeup is always close at hand, and the seven makeup artists rotate throughout the day, depending on their schedules.

We are all feeling fairly giddy from the heat and excitement from making a movie.  The scene arrives where Flora (Sarah Martens) must cry quietly in Sami’s bed.  Mohannad must then get in the bed and put his arm around her.  It takes at least forty minutes to set up the lights, and the two lie in bed together, in position.  After a while I hear snickering from the set.  By the fifth day we have all developed a comfortable rapport, but I realize that if I’m not careful to manage the environment, the comfort and emotional safety of the actors may be compromised.  I firmly remind the crew that Sarah and Mohannad are working hard, and that no body should do anything that could bring them out of the zone.  It quiets down, and I wonder if the crew will still show up tomorrow.

Without realizing it, it has gotten very late, and we have a long way to go, yet.  A critical scene is at hand, with Mohannad and Sami watching TV together in bed.  It is Kareem’s first and last scene of the day.  I can tell he has been preparing.

“Quiet on the set!”

“Camera rolling.”


“And… Action!”

Kareem and Mohannad play their scene so naturally yet intensely that I feel moved by their authenticity.  Kareem barely blinks through the entire scene.  It is incredible.  We do one more take from a closer vantage point, and then move on to transition to the next set up.  As I am rearranging the items on the night table, I notice that Kareem is drenched in sweat from concentration.

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Director’s Journal: Day 4

Tuesday, Day 4.

In many ways our fourth day of shooting is a breath of fresh air.  Though we spent the day in Mohannad’s stifling basement again, we shoot all morning and afternoon on my Super8 camera, in order to achieve the look of the memory sequences.  This also means that we don’t have to worry about airplane sound, quieting the set, boom mics or lavalieres.  It is a director’s dream, in that I can yell out direction while we are shooting without concern over sound quality.  The day goes by fairly smoothly.  We even decide to let Julie Gaynin (one of our Macalester interns) shoot.  She does a great job (or at least we hope she does, since we can’t review the footage until it is developed later), and we have some fun.  Sami Aziz (Kareem Aal) dances across the set with Flora Mur (Sarah Martens).  There is a lot of laughter, and we quickly make our way through the call sheet.

In the afternoon, we bring in Ali Arahawi (15) who portrays the young version of Mohannad.  Ali is a former student of Nadia Phelps (who plays Mohannad and Sami’s mother).  Some years ago Nadia noticed that one of the students in her school bore a striking resemblance to Mohannad Ghawanmeh, her friend.  Ali left Nadia’s school, but Nadia stayed in touch, and helped us contact Ali’s family to discuss the role in Triumph67.

Now, Ali comes down the stairs to the basement.  He is a confident kid whose nervousness is covered up by is flirtatiousness with the females on the set.  He is wearing a sweater with a British looking emblem ironed onto the front, which we got from his real life friend who agreed to donate the costume in exchange for being an extra in the film.  His friend waits for him in the kitchen, snacking on crackers and trail mix.  Ali listens to the direction that I give him, and we shoot two of the four scenes that we need from him without incident.

As the afternoon progresses, Ali becomes increasingly nervous.  He claims that he has a stomach-ache and feels faint.  I ask him if he would like to take a break and would like some water.  He tells me that he hasn’t eaten anything all day.  I encourage him to eat something, and we set up the last two shots with Ali, this time with our full rig in HD.  Ali becomes increasingly nervous as he sees the high tech camera being set up.  All he has to do is to hold the super8 camera, and look through the staircase leading down to the basement.  He begins to have a small panic attack, and I do my best to reassure him that he will be fine.  We quickly get the shot, and then set up the last shot—a shot where Ali holds a phone, and must look like he was hit by a train.  I couldn’t tell whether it was the anxiety, or if he was secretly a great actor, but he nailed the shot the first time around.  I told him that he was a great actor (which I actually think is true), and sent him off the set to get a bite to eat.  He quickly began to feel better, and disappeared upstairs.

We conclude the evening with two scenes with Sami Aziz (Kareem Aal).  He must sit in precisely the same position that young Mohannad previously sat, strike a match, light a small antique Kodak lantern, and look natural.  I call out for quiet on the set.


“And, action!”

Kareem strikes the match.  It doesn’t light.

“Cut!  Quiet on the set…”

“Camera rolling.”

“Sound… speed…”

“And, action!”

Kareem strikes the match for the second time.  Nothing.


The pattern of match failure continues for about fifteen minutes, until we have reached the last match in the book.  There are no more matches in the house, and the hour is getting late.  I coach Kareem on how to strike the match so it can’t possibly fail.

“Quiet on the set!”

“Camera’s rolling…”

“Sound, speed!”

“And… Action!”

I notice that Kareem isn’t handling the match how I suggested.  A sudden urge to shriek with laughter comes over me, but I stifle it.  I hold my breath.  He strikes the match, and it lights, flickers, then remains lit.  He lights the lantern, and nails the scene.


By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 4

Director’s Journal: Day 3

Monday, Day 3.

Day 3 begins with a frantic granola bar and cup of coffee.  It’s a beautiful sunny day, which is lucky, because we are scheduled to shoot Kareem and Mohannad on the motorcycle again.  I’m a wreck.  Not only do I have to somehow get the antique bike from Richfield to location in Uptown to shoot without permission in a private parking lot, but Kareem and Mohannad have to ride without a helmet.  To make matters more interesting, Kareem has to ride with an eye patch and cowboy boots.  I start to question the sanity of the whole thing as I follow the actors and Director of Photography, Jeremy Wilker, across town, with the Triumph angrily rumbling beneath me.  It is a finicky bike.  It took way too long to start this morning, and this time, the fuel valves were in their proper position.  I wonder if it will start again once we get to the location.

Twenty minutes later we arrive.  I dismount the bike, drenched in sweat from the anxiety of not getting killed on the way over.  Even after the motorcycle class, I feel awkward on the Triumph.  It almost died twice on the way over, and I had to rev the engine to keep it from stalling.  Its not fun stalling at a traffic light with a long line of rush hour cars behind you.

We set up the bike and camera in the parking lot, which is thankfully pretty empty.  The task at hand is for Kareem to kick start the bike.  Shooting the reflective chrome is a challenge, and we find a spot to set up the camera where the reflection of the camera in the chrome is minimal.  Already behind schedule, we start rolling.


Kareem kicks the starter several times.  Nothing.  I examine the bike, wondering when someone is going to spot us with a camera and come down to shut us down.  Kareem gets off the bike, and I demonstrate how to start it again.




Kareem kicks the bike into life, but it dies too quickly.  We try again, and this time get the shot we need.

The next shot requires Kareem to ride up the exit ramp, past Jeremy, wearing no helmet and an eye patch.  Miraculously he pulls it off the first time, and we steal the shots just as someone comes out and starts bothering us.

Next we drive across town toward a view that Jeremy likes, where the skyline is prominent in the background.

When we get there I am again covered in sweat.  My hands are exhausted from working the clutch and breaks.  How do people drive across country on these things?

Jeremy sets up the camera on a highway bridge overlooking downtown.  Meanwhile, I’m a block away with Kareem, preparing him to ride over the bridge with his eye-patch.  If Kareem is nervous, he doesn’t show it.   On my cell phone, I call Jeremy, and he says:

“Camera rolling!”

“Action!” I yell, and Kareem attempts to ride off.  The engine dies.  And I jump on and start it again.  Kareem gets back on, and drives off.  Please Jeezus, don’t let me down this time.

I run to the bridge.  Success!  We got the shot.  Next, its Mohannad’s turn to ride the bike, but we’re out of time, supposed to be back on location at Mohannad’s house to shoot the darkroom scene, which our set designers have been setting up all morning.

I hustle the bike two blocks over to where I spotted a great location that matched the color scheme of the movie.  A large yellow moving truck parked in front of an alley.  Perfect, if Mohannad can just ride out from behind the truck, and pass in front of the camera.

We set up the shot, and are almost ready.  A man walks up to the truck, and prepares to drive it away.  Shit!  I want the truck in the shot… I need the truck in the shot.  It’s perfect.  So I run up to the man, and ask him to wait just a few minutes so we can get the shot with his truck.  I offer twenty bucks, but he says he’ll wait for free.  I coach Mohannad on how to pull out of the alley.

“Camera rolling!”

“And, Action!”

The bike dies.  The man in the truck blinks.  I run over and start the bike again, and we repeat the exact scenario two more times, before it works on the third take.  When we finally get it, the man in the truck drives off in a huff.  We breathe a sigh of relief.  Mission accomplished.  Only an hour and a half behind schedule.

Later that afternoon, we prepare for the darkroom scene.  With all of the red lights set up in the stifling basement room, it is well over 80 degrees, and covered in condensation.  Drops of water fall from the ceiling, and the humidity makes it feel like its 90 degrees.

In the cramped room, the shot looks exactly how I envisioned, and Kareem and Mohannad to well with their lines.  I feel reassured when I hear Guy Harrison, Gaffer, commenting on how gorgeous the shot looks.  For a moment I wonder if he is just saying that so we can finish and move on, but I dismiss the thought.  Guy is a pro, and very positive.

Sarah Martens finds the zone, and gets teary eyed for her big scene.  Crouching in a corner behind the camera with James, Script Supervisor, I try not to break into hysterical laughter.  Staying quiet in serious moments has never been my strong suit.  When I was thirteen, I went to Yom Kippur services with my family.  At the end of the long service when the Rabbi read the names of the recently departed, my brother and I would eye each other, wondering who would laugh first.  When the Rabbi read the name, Frank Banks, I was the clear loser.

We make it through the day, and end with a scene in the basement bathroom where Mohannad splashes water on his face.  He does it in one take, and we call it a wrap.

That night I find myself sweeping up garbage in the main level of Mohannad’s house preparing for the next day.  Almost everyone has left except for one of the producers.  She is doubling as the wardrobe department, since Vanessa Miles is out of town until the last week of shooting.  As the last producer searches through the wardrobe for tomorrow’s costumes, she realizes that they need to be ironed.  It is past two in the morning, and well over 80 degrees in the house still.  It’s been a long day, and there is no end in sight.  As I argue over whether or not we should iron, it occurs to me that the coffee maker needs to be emptied and cleaned for tomorrow.  As sweat drips down from my lower back, into my pants, I realize that I should have bought Caribou coffee in a box.

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 3

Director’s Journal: Day 2

Sunday, Day 2.

With the first day of shooting behind us, I feel more secure about what I am doing as director, and what it all means.  Remember, I haven’t been through any of this before, like some Hollywood director sipping espresso from under an umbrella with a megaphone.  On the contrary, yesterday I found myself setting up the industrial strength coffee maker that I had borrowed from my parents, and trying to find a place for it amidst the food and catering supplies that Mohannad’s mother, Fatima, had strewn around the kitchen in preparation for the second days’ meal.  Fatima is a lovely woman, quiet and kind, and tirelessly preparing the most amazing vegetarian and vegan food for the cast and crew of around thirty people.  Without complaining, she quietly sets up some breakfast choices for the crew.  Cheese, crackers, grapes, coffee, peanuts and M&Ms… I reach directly for the M&Ms.

The second day feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the first.  Largely, this is because we are shooting in the front of the house most of the day, and the breeze helps to cool us down.  I am much happier with how the shots turn out outside.  There is more space for us to get the right positioning, and the breeze brings a nice element of motion into the background as the leaves blow around.  It is important that they move a little, as our shots are so stationary, by choice, and necessity.  It is challenging shooting with the sun shining directly down on the scene, and we wrestle several makeshift sun deflectors to prevent direct sunlight from bathing the actors and ruining the shots.  In spite of the sun, we make our way through most of the first several scenes.

In the afternoon, I bring the antique 1967 Triumph Bonneville to the front of the house.  I rode it to the scene, that morning, keeping my fingers crossed that it would start and I wouldn’t get into a fatal accident on the way to Richfield, where we have been shooting.  As the case and crew take a five minute breather, I review the scene to come: Sami Aziz rides the Triumph up the sidewalk where Mohannad is dozing on the steps.  Sami yells out one line.  Simple enough.

The only problem, is for the life of me, I can’t get the bike started.  I kick the starter over and over, and nothing…  The sun blazes down.   The script supervisor, James Janicelli, looks over nervously, pretending not to worry.  I kick the starter, again and again.  Sweat pours down my face in the blazing sun.  I realize how ridiculous it must all look.  The director frantically kicking the starter of this antique British motorcycle, while his cast and crew watch on in a mix of sunstroke and amusement.

I take a break, and return to the bike slowly.  I go over every step that Roy had shown me at Roy’s repair.  Tickle the fuel buttons.  Check to make sure the bike is in neutral.  Check the key.  On.  Check the—Oh! The fuel valves!!  I move them into position, and try again.  The bike bursts into life, just as a cool breeze moves through the trees.  Applause.  Were they real, or did I just imagine them.  I don’t even know.

We shoot the scene with Sami Aziz (Kareem Aal) riding up the sidewalk on the Triumph.  He tries the maneuver several times, every so often killing the engine.  I start the bike again for him so his makeup won’t completely run down and stain his shirt.

“Quiet on the set!”

“Camera rolling!”



Kareem maneuvers the bike up the sidewalk and breaks, his boots skidding across the concrete to a halt.

“Yo Habibi!”

His line.

“Cut! Perfect!”

There are more applause, and this time I know they are real, because I am applauding.  It makes me very nervous to see anyone other than myself ride the bike.   There’s the risk of injury, death, or damage to the bike itself.  And the bike is only partially mine.  The body belongs to the bike I bought last winter, but the engine and other antique parts belong to Roy, a bearded motorcycle man who spends his days gunning bikes in need of repair in his warehouse repair station in South Minneapolis.

I look over at Kareem, who sits pensively, still on the Triumph.

“What’s the matter?”  I wonder out loud.

Kareem’s makeup glistens in the beating sun.  “Was I supposed to be holding the Leica bag?”

By Dan | Posted in Journal, Production | Comments Off on Director’s Journal: Day 2