It was day 14 of 20 and we were preparing to film the scene in which detectives survey the crime scene where Maria lies on the bed, murdered. The day was hot, with temperature in the mid-90s and inside the house was very uncomfortable with so many people in such a small space.
The camera was set up in the hallway, looking in toward the bed where Maria lay. We did a first run-through with the detectives walking in and standing over the body. In the dialog, one detective chides the other for his garish shirt. The conversation progresses, alternating between serious investigatory remarks and gentle joking among the cops.
I was in the kitchen, which is adjacent to the bedroom, listening and watching the monitor. When the run-through finished, the detectives re-entered the kitchen to prepare for the next take of the same scene. (They enter the bedroom from the kitchen in the scene.)
All of a sudden Roger burst into the kitchen and said, in front of cast and crew there, “Alright, we can’t do it this way. We can’t have the detectives being disrespectful to the body that way. They can’t joke among themselves when she is lying there dead. We are taking out all the jokes.” He was very upset.
I asked him what on earth was going on. He explained that one of the camera operators (a woman) was crying and was deeply disturbed by the jocular dialog in the face of the sadness of the scene.
I said softly, trying to make the discussion just between us, that the script had been read by him and everyone else. The dialog had not be changed, so they should all have been on board with it. I said that whoever was having a meltdown was probably doing so in response to unrelated stress and that she needed to be told to behave more professionally. I ended by noting that he had agreed to direct the script as written. I said we were not going to change the story or the scene just because someone was getting emotional over it.
Roger didn’t back down. He said loudly, “I just can’t shoot it that way. I won’t do it.”
I was trying hard not to explode. I wanted to go in and yell at whoever had lost a grip on their emotions. And I wanted to scream at Roger, “Do your damned job!” But I put a lid on my own reactions and looked at Chad Halbrook, our lead actor, for help. Chad immediately read me.
Chad stepped in front of Roger and said that joking is how people handle bad situations. It is totally normal, he said, for cops to joke among themselves in the face of a murder scene because it is a coping mechanism. He ended by firmly saying, “We have to film it the way it is written.” He was getting through to Roger, who was calming down.
Roger replied that we could change the script a bit to make it less offensive. Both Chad and I took turns explaining that it wasn’t offensive, that the cops made no remarks about the body, the girl, or her death. They merely chided one another with meaningless prattle.
Finally Roger agreed and we returned to filming. It was remarkable to me that no one in the cast or crew seemed affected by the to-do. I was very grateful for that.
After that incident, I vowed that if I ever did another movie, I would have the cast and crew sign a statement that they’d read and understood the script, and that they would in no way object to its being filmed as written.
The vigilante was supposed to walk toward her sleeping victim and stop near him. She would pick up a photograph on the table and gaze at its subjects—him, his wife, and children. She would slowly shake her head and replace the photo. The point, of course, was to show how even rapists can have families and appear to have “normal lives”.
But in reviewing the takes, there were big problems. The vigilante moved exceedingly slowly, more than doubling the time needed for good pacing. And then there was the issue that no close up of the photograph was taken. Without that, the audience would have no clue as to the purpose of her looking at the photo. The message that the rapist had a seemingly ordinary family life could not be conveyed without the image close-up.
I was sad about the lack of film coverage of the photograph, but without it, there was no point in having the vigilante pause for it. So, for the sake of pace and want of message, I cut the entire “photo gazing” part of the scene. I felt miffed that no one had thought to film an up-close of the photograph after all the trouble to manufacture the prop for the scene and to film her picking it up. And I was miffed that the “regular guy” aspect of the rapist wouldn’t be made.
Later, I was going through takes in preparation for editing another related scene: the rapist greeting his intended victim at his door. I almost shouted aloud, “Oh my gosh, there it is, the close up of the photo of the rapist and his family!”
The cinematographer had filmed the photograph in the foreground, with the rapist greeting his intended victim in the background. What an artful way of conveying my “regular family guy” notion! My original objective for having the photograph had been achieved in an entirely different way, and one which was more subtle than the original plan. Rather than hitting the audience squarely with the message, it is delivered obliquely. This was a lovely instance of having another artist on the film come up with a creative idea to do something that I liked much better than my own preconceived idea.
To his credit, Angel said soon after production ended that we didn’t have either enough B roll or the right shots. He said it would be best if we could hire Sparky Sorenson and his drone for one more day. Specifically, we knew we needed: more daytime shots of the exterior of the police building and of the Mesquite Arts Center (aka our “college”); the boathouse on the lake; and nighttime overhead shots of traffic.
We spent more time than anticipated getting the college, so we were in a bit of a hurry when we got to the police department. I already had permission to shoot the exterior of the building, although I hadn’t specified any shots being taken from a drone. Since I didn’t think we would be very close to the building, I decided not to bother anyone inside with a notice that we’d be doing drone shots that day.
In the parking lot, we discussed with Sparky that we’d like to have film going from one end of the curved building to the other, filming in an arc, at about the level of the top of the building looking down. We didn’t want to get any directly overhead shots or to get close at all. So, Sparky programmed the drone to go from point A, to point B, to point C, then back again to achieve the rounded shot of the Department.
It was the first shot of the police building from the drone that day. And the last.
Sparky programmed A, B, C, A instead of A, B, C, B, A. That meant that the drone would cut across the building rather than following the same arc on the return. And, because the drone was not too high up, it clipped the edge of the roof, which was flat in that section, and crashed onto it.
Part of the police department roof was flat, where the drone crashed. But part of the building was actually higher than the flat portion and had office windows overlooking that part of the roof. As you can imagine, there was a flurry of response as police officials inside witnessed a drone crashing onto their roof.
Those who know what true dread feels like will understand when I say that my adrenaline kicked in and my heart raced as I realized what happened. It was a mixture of concern about the poor drone, a bit of “oh no, we won’t get the shots now”, but mostly a fear of what the police would say and do. Would there be a fine? Would they give us the drone back? What on earth will I say to them?
I told Sparky we had to go in right away and try to claim the drone. Angel said he didn’t want to be any part of it all and walked away. So into the building I went and talked to the Sergeant on duty. “Yes,” he said, “we already know about the drone. Stay right here. Someone will be down shortly.”
I thought to myself how quickly he’d been notified, as it had been only a matter of a couple of minutes since the disaster. And the scowl that accompanied that “stay right here” made me very apprehensive.
Sparky and I were put into a small room to wait, where I began to rehearse what I would say to try to get the drone back. We stewed for about 20 minutes before a plain-clothes officer came. He said, “Well, you certainly caused some excitement.” I explained how the mishap occurred and he told us that they were not yet sure how to retrieve the drone because the roof was sealed and they hadn’t yet found anyone who had the ability to access it. He told us to wait while they tried to locate someone.
At last we were taken to go onto the roof. We had to climb a very narrow set of stairs that were unlit and whose risers were so high that I struggled in absence of a handrail. At the top of the stairs was a very heavy hatch that had to be pushed upward.
While the policeman waited, Sparky and I went across the roof to retrieve the crippled drone. It was sad to see Sparky examine it. But I was very, very grateful that they allowed us to have it back.
It took some time before Sparky could get replacement parts and we could go back out. Although I wished we could get more shots of the police department, I decided not to try. Instead, we concentrated on getting some shots of the boathouse at White Rock Lake and traffic at night.
As I’ve mentioned, I had a vision of the film and the scenes within it from the time I wrote the script. But, the way some scenes were directed and filmed so exceeded my vision and expectations. I was delighted, as if I were given a surprise gift. I would like to mention a few here and more later.
The script has it that Lehman, a villain, shaves his body to assure that he leaves no hair at the scene of his crimes. Now you can envision a man shaving his body in many ways, all with different lighting, angles, and atmosphere. Roger told me he was going to strive for “creepy” and I think he more than excelled at his objective. Roger had Lehman use a straight razor. And the dim lighting on his body as he drags it across his skin is an image that lingers with the viewer—just what you want.
The shaving scene was so well done that I assured that it played fairly long. Angel told me that I gave it too much time. But it is so full of evil, so ominous, that I really believed it could even have been made a bit longer. But it is an appropriate medium length.
I had some trouble placing the scene in the movie. Obviously, it had to be early, but where was unclear. Then, well into the middle of the editing process, I was talking to Johnny Marshall one day, telling him that I was not pleased with the way that the movie started. He suggested beginning with the shaving scene. It was a stroke of genius not only because it set the creepiness factor at the outset, but also because it allowed featuring the marionette as the opening frame.
Let me step back to a little history to comment on the marionettes. When Angel and I visited an Air BNB I’d found, we spoke to the lady who rented it out and told her we’d like to film at her place. (Immediately, she quadrupled the price, which made it out of our range.) The small bedroom had two marionettes in it. They were what made the place “Lehman’s lair” to me. His character is manipulative, crazy, and sees humans as not quite human, but some inanimate objects as anthropomorphic. I made her a written offer to buy or rent the two antique marionettes. She refused. So, it was one of the first requests I submitted to our Designer and Property Master: get marionettes for Lehman’s place.
Back to the extraordinary scenes. Another of Roger’s brilliant scenes was Coxon, the detective, at his favorite lake wharf. He is agonized and angry. Not one word is spoken in the scene. The acting and direction are superb, as is the filming. If it had been filmed even longer than it was, I would have included every second of it. To me, it is that powerful.
I want to share with you some of my considerations in editing. First let me tell you why I axed a couple of scenes even though there was very high production value to the location.
It is hard to exaggerate how hard I worked to obtain permission to film in the Mesquite Police Department gym, which is a fabulous place. It is ultra-modern and has a sort of blue aura to the lighting. The first scene we would film there was designed to be when the lead detective and the police psychologist have their first interaction—let’s call it encounter 1. Encounter 2 was to be when they were more advanced in their relationship, getting more personal.
Encounter 1 had been rewritten and, although I agreed to it, I was dubious. Originally, it was to be a scene in which the detective admired the psychologist as she worked on karate, but it had become one in which he was irritable toward her, even disdainful. I was bothered by this because it seemed out-of-character for him to be rude and I couldn’t see the point of having antipathy injected when it was to be reversed only a few scenes later. So, to be honest, I was unhappy with the content, but was ready to let it happen and see if it worked.
During the rehearsal, the lead actor was exercising and doing pull-ups. I asked to have him stopped to save his energy, but was told, “Don't’ worry, he won’t get tired.” I knew better, but didn’t want to make an issue of disagreeing in front of personnel.
Then began a series of takes in which the actor bench pressed. With each take, his effort was more and more strained. Later, when I watched the best takes, it looked ridiculous, like he was trying to work on weights that were way beyond his physical capacity. So I axed the scene on two counts: its incongruity with the character of the person and of the film, and the silly looking iron pumping.
Encounter 2 was when the psychologist and detective are working out together, talking face to face. I had left the set during its filming to go do managerial work when it was shot, so didn’t know until later that it had a very serious flaw: the lead actor had injured his wrist in the exercise filming encounter 1. Now it was wrapped in white tape around the wrist and hand. It was glaring, distracting, and begged the question of what was wrong with him.
The bandage was not only white, it was bulky. To remove it with special effects would be too much of a challenge and would cost more than our entire effects budget.
I considered having the entire scene be a conversation with his voice in the background, but only showing her. But that raised a different problem. She was working on a machine in which her arms were bent beside her head, pressing forward against weights. But there was no weight on the machine. So it looked totally effortless (and was), like she was playing, not exercising. Again, it looked silly.
There are important lessons I should have already known. Don’t allow actors to exercise on-set and use minimal physical effort prior to actual filming so as to guarantee fresh energy. Don’t allow bandages or other distracting elements to costumes. Also, if there is supposed to be physical resistance, make sure it looks real. And the best was to do that is to have it be real.
One of the most enjoyable days I had during the production period was on a day off when Roger and I met with Janell Smith, our stunt coordinator and action choreographer. We met in my apartment to discuss the final fight scene. Roger and I had some different views on how it should go and we needed to reconcile those, but also to make sure that Janell’s expertise be fully exploited.
We began with a discussion of what the scene should accomplish. Clearly it is an action scene, but was there any information that also needed to be given to the audience? Roger wanted there to be dialog that conveyed a past history between the two fighters. I said that people didn’t stop and have discussion when there was a fight unto death. We settled on a compromise whereby the woman says, just before she bunts her forehead into her opponent’s, “I should have killed you in Portland.” I still think the line is contrived, but I was happy that he accepted there not being a longer conversation and I think he was content with the line.
Janell was a creative expert throughout the discussion. We asked her how the blows could be exchanged with no one gaining the upper hand at first, and how the woman could overcome the bulk of her opponent. We went through the fight with Janell playing each person, showing us how it would look and made suggestions on how to gain credibility with the moves.
Because we spent the time to prepare the scene, I think it turned out very well. It was filmed in the wee hours on the last day of shooting when everyone was exhausted. And, although there were some problems, I know for sure that the planning we did paid off handsomely.
We were filming at the Mesquite Civic Center on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The scene was an important one that absolutely could not be cut, nor any part of it edited out; the content was crucial to the movie.
The cinematographer had the idea of filming through a stairwell window, across a gap, and through another window, where the lead detective would be looking out. Thus, there would be two panes of glass to film through, with no way to clean the windows first. To say that I was skeptical is too mild; I even thought of interceding and stopping the idea. I thought the lighting would be wrong and that the dirty windows would make the scene amateurish.
I was completely wrong. Yes, the windows are smudged and the lighting is a bit bright, but I think that the effect of both is just right. It is, artistically, one of my favorite images in the movie. I am glad I said nothing.
On the same day, we filmed two detectives talking to one another during a chance encounter in the hallway. I had spoken to Roger about my enthusiasm for filming in the stairwell, but was worried about angles. I had thought the two actors would be filmed only a few steps apart, so that one would not be too high over the other.
Instead, the scene is filmed with one actor much higher up on the stairs, looking down at the other. I absolutely love how it turned out. The height difference coveys a certain power to the conversation. And it showcases the architectural beauty of the building, which is glass and metal with lots of appealing curves.