“Making Meme” is a series of blog posts about the long process of taking a project from an idea to a completed feature film. I made a lot of mistakes on the way and learned a lot of lessons, but I also had a lot of fun and got to work with a lot of wonderful people throughout the process. These posts are presented in the hopes of helping others in their struggles to make a film.– Sean Mannion, Writer/Director, Meme
The quote of the day for Day Eight of production was: “People think you have to know what you want to do with your life by the time you’re 19. Wrong! Or that you have to be in a significant relationship in your twenties. Wrong! It’s all just nonsense. – Tilda Swinton”
Day Eight for production was February 7th, 2015. We were again at actress Lauren A. Kennedy’s apartment, with it acting as her character’s apartment. Day Eight sticks out in my mind for two reasons: Director of Photography Peter Westervelt helping nudge me to be a better director and the way over the next month or so the certain aspects of the film and my own life intersected.
No matter how much experience you have with something–and Meme is not the first film/video I’d directed, I’d shot many short films and web videos over the preceding years–it’s important to listen to the people you’re working with and take recommendations when they’re going to make something better. As a director you’re the person who makes decisions. Everyone else knows their jobs well and will tell you what’s best for them and making sure what piece of the project is theirs is as good as it can be. As a director, particularly on a low/no budget film, you have to make the call on what’s most important for the full scope of the project. You’ve got to have the wide scope vision in your head and weigh all the specifics. You’ve got to decide where to sacrifice. You’ve also got to realize when someone is telling you something that you probably should have thought of yourself and accept and implement the suggestions.
In this particular case I had it in my head that an interaction between Lesley (Lauren A. Kennedy) and Jennifer (Sarah Schoofs) would be stationary in front of the TV while Jennifer was handling some videotapes. Peter made the excellent point that one or the other of them need to move in the scene. It was too static. It was dull. I resisted, as I recall, for a bit. Then, realized Peter was right and we blocked the scene to have Lesley walk in and out of the room as they spoke and then settle in a comfortable position on the couch for the end of the scene. Much more dynamic. Much more natural in a lot of ways. Also, it differentiates this scene from a similar one that comes not much later in that Lesley is less engaged with Jennifer’s activities in this scene, but sits next to her in the later scene. The blocking better reflects the stage the characters are in emotionally as far as the activity. There’s a progression between the scenes now.
The other thing that sticks out about Day Eight is the way certain elements of Meme started to intersect more with what was going on in my life at the time. Meme is not in any way directly autobiographical. None of the things in this film happened to me. None literally anyway. There are aspects of the film that, like any art really, are born out of my state of mind as I was writing and how I felt about certain parts of my life or certain events. The freelancer struggle depicted is inspired by some frustrating interactions I’ve had as a freelancer and also working with clients before I went freelance. The relationship issues in the film are inspired by being in a long-term relationship during times of some pretty intense strain/pressure on it due to our move to New York, far from anyone we knew, and the financial issues brought on by the lingering effects of the financial collapse of 2008. Drinking as self-medication was definitely coming from my habits at the time and that really came into focus for me around this time and the intersection of that with the film.
On Day Eight we shot an intervention scene. One of the major character arcs for Jennifer is her drinking starts to interfere with work and her relationships with her friends. Her friend Lesley eventually confronts her about it and we have a tense scene of her just asking her friend to take better care of herself. This is part of the movie where Jennifer starts to take a turn for the better. There’s a few things that contribute to it, but this is an important one. I don’t think I quite hit the point Jennifer did in the film but within two months of shooting this scene I was seriously evaluating my own behavior. I’ll go into that in more depth when we get there.
The quote of the day for the Ninth Day of Production was: “Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is fear of failure. – Jack Lemmon”
The Ninth Day was our last at Lauren’s apartment. We’d shot the longer and some of the most of the more complicated scenes already and were down to some shorter scenes of Jennifer sharing with Lesley as she’s recovering from the aforementioned self-medication with booze. On this day we also shot the scene where the specific reason for the intervention takes place. After drinking has been interfering with work and other interactions finally in this scene Jennifer does something potentially disastrous in bringing a stranger back to Lesley’s apartment. The stranger was played by Jeremy, who was dating our lead actress Sarah at the time.
There are awkward things that happen sometimes when you’re stitching together a no budget project. Everyone’s a volunteer. You’re appreciative of everyone who gives time and energy but it also opens you up to that it’s tougher to vet whether or not someone is actually able to do the job they’re showing up for. We were fortunate that we didn’t really have issues with that. One of the particularly awkward things that can happen is when someone has a friend or boyfriend that could totally help, but you don’t really have any idea. Boyfriend or girlfriend of a key person, like a lead actress, can get you a little worried. What if they break up and you haven’t finished that girlfriend or boyfriend’s scenes and they have to have scenes together? It could be really bad. Fortunately for us, that didn’t happen.
We needed Jeremy for two scenes that we couldn’t shoot on the same day. Our Ninth Day, the final day at Lauren’s apartment, was the first day. We also needed him for a later shoot day at a bar. My Producer Carolyn Maher and I had a little side conversation earlier in the process about how good or bad an idea it was to do this. It’s not really a judgment call on the relationship in question, but when you’re in production you really have to seriously consider the ramifications of the worst case scenario for everything. You must have a backup plan. While some might argue, they’re both actors and if they’re professional, then they can work with each other even after a breakup, if that’s what they’ve committed to, I didn’t want us to go there. I needed another option. So, we decided that in the worst case scenario where there was a bad breakup and it wouldn’t work to have them shoot the second day together, we just wouldn’t show the man that Sarah’s Jennifer was picking up when they were in the bar and we’d just see him at Lesley’s apartment. We could still do the scene, just shoot around him. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that.
It’s not fun at all having to think through things like that. Still, you don’t want to rely on everything being totally fine. You don’t want to get caught either asking someone else to do something very uncomfortable for them or being unable to shoot.
This is just one example of that kind of planning you need to take into consideration. For a “no budget” film this comes up with many other situations. Crew that have to cancel last minute due to a job coming up or being extended. Locations changing the times you can shoot. Not having enough extras to fill out what should be a crowded bar/restaurant scene. You’ve got to have a back up plan or a workaround ready to go on some level as soon as these things come up.
Next time we’ll cover production days 10 and 11 two important days for the shoot with some very different stresses. One of which caused me to have a spontaneous nose bleed.