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|Magic Moments, Morning Light
June 17, 2000
Today we laughed at the rain as we shot interiors from the afternoon into the early morning.
We were focusing on Ramona's home. Ramona is Beverly's daughter. She has three children - Jamal, Nia and Shaquille. Jamal lives with Beverly. In the scenes we shot today, Beverly comes to Ramona's house to take Shaquille and Nia back to live with her in West Philadelphia. The goal today was to film three scenes: a scene with Nia and Shaquille and Beverly on the staircase; Ramona and Beverly's explosive confrontation in the kitchen; and Beverly's entrance into the house, when she is overwhelmed by how unkempt her grandchildren's home actually is.
Our little crew fills up a Philadelphia row home quickly. We include a director of photography, the assistant camera, two sound people, one production technician, one director, an assistant director, coordinating producer, five production assistants, not to mention the four actors, and Barbara, from Barbara's animals, and Hugo, the black and white cat that Nia is caring for. Oh, and we've got a film camera, lights, monitors and many, many cables.
We're fortunate to be able to use a church down the street as a home base for make up, costumes, food stuffs and bathrooms.
Our location scout found the perfect home for this scene. We've arranged to meet woman who owns the home at 3 p.m. She's not there when we arrive. There are, however, a lot of children in the house, some older (who are babysitting), and many younger. The Jerry Springer show is blaring on the television as we call the mother, who is still at work and can't get away until 4:30 p.m. While we are figuring out what to do, the children's grandfather arrives at the house. He's had no warning that we are descending on the house, and is naturally confused and upset. He kicks us out until the mother or father can be there when we set up our equipment.
No matter, we'll film a scene of Beverly walking down the street before she enters the house. Makes no difference that the sun was shining brightly when we shot the scene of her leaving her West Philadelphia home a few days earlier. . . Beverly's in costume, the camera is set up, and the rain comes down. We wait, and give it a try a few minutes later. The rain thins out a bit, but every time we try a take someone walks in the frame carrying an umbrella.
I decide that Beverly has two intense and dramatic scenes to tackle today, and standing in the rain is probably not the best way to prepare for such an emotional day of work.
The scenes with Nia and Shaquille go beautifully. The young actors are engaging and fun to work with. The house we are filming in has a bit of a city bug problem. Ahmad, the young actor playing Shaquille, innocently asks me if we brought the bugs as part of the set design.
After we film the scene from Beverly's point of view, we turn the whole set up around (camera and lights) and film Beverly from the staircase. It all goes remarkably well. One little problem, Hugo the cat doesn't want to come downstairs on cue. So we move him to the next scene, where he has to sit in Nia's lap on the couch. (He does this brilliantly It's a long scene - it runs four or five minutes - and takes three hours to film. When we break to eat lunch a bit of panic sets in - did we film the actors looking in the correct direction? Line of sight gets confusing real quick in film storytelling - we decide that all is alright, but I expect a few surprises when I begin editing next month.
Beverly and Ramona's scene is quite moving. It too is a long scene that builds emotionally from sparring words to an emotional upheaval that clears the way for understanding between the two women. Beverly (Nell Johnson) and Ramona (Matt Rochester) walk through the scene a few times for blocking purposes - we decide on camera angles and finesse the lighting. The scene takes two hours to film. In our last take Ramona tells her mother to take her children out of the house, giving them a chance at life. Matt Rochester, Ramona, gives a dreamy performance. She unknowingly steps off her mark, quite close to the camera. This unplanned close-up of Ramona is startlingly beautiful. Most of her face is dark, and our fake sunlight streaming in this tired kitchen window lights the edges of her striking profile. I'm moved by the collision of words, acting, lighting, camera framing - everything mixes together to form a kind of magic moment that makes everything stop and look and listen. It feels like slow motion, but it's not. As I'm watching the monitor, I'm thinking that this is what all the weeks of coordination, location scouting, casting, script synthesis, propping, paperwork, phone calls, letters -- all of it builds to make moments like this possible. I don't realize (until the take is over) that I've been holding my breath.
Then we run out of film. Mid sentence. Well, it happens.
My favorite part of a very exciting day -- when we wrapped the set at 1:30 a.m. our morning light was still streaming in the kitchen window.
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