Drywall & Banana Bread
By John Scott Lewinski
"It is possible to make a visually rich, involving short film with all the polish and style of a major Hollywood release."
OK. That's sensible. You buy that. Try this one:
"It is possible to make a visually rich, involving short film with all the polish and style of a major Hollywood release...for around $30,000."
No? You'd better stop laughing because, if you didn't buy that one, you may not realize just how "sensible" such a concept really is.
When writer/director Elise Robertson set out to adapt the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, "The Sensible Thing," she went in knowing she would not have all the luxurious resources of a big budget production.
Still, the talented, young filmmaker overcame production snafus, money problems and legal obstacles to complete the Fitzgerald story. In the end, she developed an acclaimed short film that found a home as the premiere episode of PBS' new series, "American Storytellers."
"The day I got the call from the Fitzgerald estate granting me permission to use his wonderful story, basically, for a song, I knew I had to do whatever it took to make it happen. And Fitzgerald's name spoke volumes to everyone we contacted for donations. The goodwill of the community was truly astounding."
Starring Jason Cole and Kristin Robbins, "The Sensible Thing" tells the story of an extended courtship between a woman of high society and a young man of limited means. Adapted for the screen and directed by Robertson, the film's crew needed to hustle, bend the law, call-in favors, and pinch every penny to make the engrossing, richly-detailed 30-minute production.
Every crew member and performer had to focus every ounce of their talent and energy as nine-day shoot moved from Alameda to San Francisco to Sacramento. When you're shooting unlimited imagination and ambition with a very limited budget, every shot and every take counts!
With restricted capital and a tight shooting schedule, Robertson and her team needed to think on their feet to overcome a series of spur of the moment obstacles.
Robertson explained one situation in which one of her key supporting players came up lame hours before call-time.
"The morning of the first day of shooting, on the way to our first location, I got a call from the actress playing Jonquil's Mother," Robertson said. "She broke her foot, and we couldn't block around it. So with a very tight schedule, we had less than 24 hours to recast the part, rehearse, and shoot the first scene."
Robertson added, "While on break that night between shots, we auditioned Barbara Van Dermeer, who stepped in to do the part the next day -- and she ended up doing a great job."
Any major feature film might have to recast an ailing actor before principal photography, but independent films like Robertson's "The Sensible Thing" needed to pull off more unusual stunts to keep the cameras rolling.
According to Robertson, the most unusual ploy might have been Operation Banana Bread! The crew found themselves in Alameda shooting without permits which failed to arrive in time. One cranky neighbor didn't want the crew shooting past 10:00 p.m. and could easily have shut down the whole production with one phone call to the police. Robertson and company calmed the nutty neighborhood with equally nutty homemade banana bread baked the night before that day's shooting!
When the crew needed a turn-of-the-century style home to serve as a set during the shoot, they managed to get the owner's permission by providing a little manual labor. The house needed some drywall and other touch-up work. So, in return for their shooting time inside the home, the crew took up hammers and pitched in some hard sweat to patch up the house.
Nick Blake, the production designer credited with the daunting job of creating the period look of "The Sensible Thing," said the successful independent short needed a little luck to stay afloat.
"We only built one set, so everything else in the film was shot on location," Blake said. "We had a lot of luck finding the right places to shoot. We searched for trains that fit the period, neighborhoods that included buildings from that area. We had to research interior decor, clothes, cars and lifestyle of the period -- and then find ways to get all that on screen!"
Blake explained that the film's low-budget combined with the filmmakers' enthusiasm to convince some people to lend a hand.
"By and large people were helpful. When they saw that this was a bunch of young people trying to make a film, they were impressed by that commitment. People would let us use their homes or their cars because it was non-profit film. And, since it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, I think some people gave that respect."
While the California Railroad Museum featured in the film required cash to let the film crew inside (and some others demanded city permits to allow production), most other host shoot sites didn't require money from Robertson and her crew.
To fill the movie's exterior establishing shots with cars suitable to the era, Robertson managed to recruit the Sacramento Model T Club to donate their vehicle to the production -- as long as the cars' owners were allowed to drive the cars on camera for their 15 seconds of film fame.
Even Panavision, the finest and most expensive motion picture camera manufacturer in the industry, donated a 35 mm camera to the shoot on a one day at a time basis.
Blake added, "The film was just a lot of fun to work on because it was really interesting doing a period movie -- recreating 1925! From Elise on down to every actor and crew-member, we all did whatever we needed to do to make it happen!"
Michael Maley, director of photography, said such a "whatever it takes" attitude is key to making a successful independent film.
"You have to think when you're on an independent shoot, as opposed to a big studio film," Maley said. "You have to be spontaneous and creative -- ready to solve problems on the spot."
Elise recalls her working relationship with Maley: "It was synergy. I would start explaining a scene, going through and telling him the story shot by shot, and then he would start suggesting camera moves and variations I hadn't thought of. By the end of each discussion we would both be so excited, jumping around and acting out the scenes and where the camera would go..... and of course Mike was always pushing for great camera angles and moves I thought were beyond our time and budget capabilities. But he'd find a way to make them happen. He used a helicopter mount on a dolly to get a shot on the moving train, and crouched on a doorway dolly mounted on top of the bathroom stalls in the Flood building for a special shot of George entering the stalls. I'd always say éIf you can do it in the time we have, I'm game.' And he would!."
Maley added that, while money solves most problems on a studio shoot, only creative thinking can help independent films get made.
Robertson recalled one incident where such quick thinking saved the film...and several hundred trees!
"The day we shot the train establishing shots, we put out what could have been a major forest fire!" she said. "Some foolish smoker tossed a cigarette butt into the dry grass near where we'd set up. We watched in horror as a fire started and spread."
Robertson saw the flames and ran across the tracks with duvatene cloth (used to protect the camera from the sun). She started beating out the fire while male crew-members used their shirts to smother the minor blaze.
"It took about 10 minutes, but we got all the flames out just as the fire department pulled up. Had we not been there, that 10 minutes would have seen it get way out of control in the dry August heat!"
Even in the heat of battle, Maley said the entire production was well worth the effort.
"The best part of the whole experience was seeing Elise's dream come to fruition," Maley said. "I never imagined it would so good. As a DP, that's rewarding."