Shooting the Movie

Q:  How long was the shooting schedule?

A:  25 days. We did three weekends in a row, then one off. We repeated this until we wrapped out.

Q:  When was it shot?

A:  Shooting took place from August 5th to November 20th, 2005.

Q:  What was the first day on set like?

A:  Easy. But hot. Knowing that we’d need a number of news stories to play in later shooting we first shot all our outdoor news scenes. This helped ease us into production. The plan was also to  shoot all outdoor scenes at the beginning of the schedule and move indoor before the weather became a concern. We didn’t want rain or snow to kill a day of shooting. The movie takes place around Thanksgiving. Which unfortunately meant we had extras dressed in winter clothes in hundred degree heat the first day. But it was only for a few shots.

Q:  Were those real news anchors in the opening sequence?

A:  Since I worked in a television news station at the time I was able to take advantage. The opening sequence, and several later scenes, feature real news anchors. Actually it was our lead anchor, sports guy, and meteorologist. They were all kind enough to help out.

I did hire an actress to play the reporter but she had freelanced as a reporter before. So it all felt very real. Which was important to me. I really didn’t want actors pretending to be news people. There’s just a very specific cadence in reading the news and if it’s not done just right it can come off as comical.

Q:  What were the biggest challenges during production?

A:  Time. I still had a full time job during production. I’d work all day and then come home and do shot lists, storyboards, props, whatever was needed for the coming weekend. I was up sometimes until five in the morning working. I was always just one step ahead of each weekend’s shoot. I was shredded. I lost a probably 10-20 pounds during production. My girlfriend even broke up with me. I just didn’t have any time for anything but Victim’s Song.

The days were long. We did a lot of takes.

Some days were harder than others. On one particular day it had been raining very hard. The basement began to flood. In between takes people would run in and soak up as much as they could with towels, then we’d reset, and go again. This went on all day.

Sometimes actors schedules didn’t mesh with the production and we’d have to make adjustments. Several of our key actors were simultaneously involved in stage roles. I don’t know how they kept their lines straight. But they did.

One scene called for a child actor to interact with a man covered in blood wielding a weapon. So as to not traumatize the boy we shot everything in pieces. First his side. Then, after he left, everything with our bloody actor.

Q:  What was it like on set?

A:  There were certainly times when things got tense. The subject matter was dark. It was a lot of work. I probably felt more stress than anyone. But despite all that the mood was generally pretty light. Everyone in cast and crew was a jokester. When we weren’t filming we were trying to make each other laugh. It was like there was some unspoken award for whoever could get the biggest laughs.

I remember one day I was really pushing Tom. I wanted him do really some really specific things physically so I could capture shots on key beats. The scene wasn’t going well. I could tell something was up. The scene kept getting worse every take. Finally Tom went for a walk. When he came back we had a chat. He chose his words carefully but I understood what he was saying. I told him to throw everything out. Forget everything I had said about turns and looks. I wanted natural. Honest. He shook it off and we got back to work. Immediately the scene starting working. We were already working well together by that point but I think we really started to trust each other after that.

There was a lot of experimentation in the shooting. Some worked, some didn’t. After I had all the coverage I needed from one particularly tense scene I told both cameramen about an idea I had for one more take. The gist was this: each cameraman had 100% free reign during the scene to find the most interesting moments. This meant the ability to shift focus from actor-to-actor on a whim. Just follow the emotion. I was hoping for some frenetic camera shots to add variety and tension to the scene. I was looking for those wonderful happy accidents that sometimes occur while filming. What I ended up with was poorly framed shots of a bowl of gravy. So that didn’t work.

Other experiments turned out fantastic. I needed some really erratic shots of Norman. After my experience with Tom I realized the value of sometimes simply getting out of the way. But after “the gravy incident” I also now understood the need to be crystal clear in my expectations. I informed Norm and my cameraman Alex exactly what my needs and expectations were in the scene. Then we setup some audio and everyone left the room. It was just Alex and Norm. They started when they were ready and they finished when there was nothing left to give. The rest of the crew, including myself, waited downstairs until the take was over. When I watched the playback saw I had everything I wanted and more. They nailed it on the first take. But they went for a second one anyway.

Q:  Did the micro-budget hinder the production?

A:  There were a number of choices made because we didn’t have a budget to support it, but I didn’t look at them hinderances as much as challenges to be more creative. Typically a complex visual effect would be met with money. Instead of trying to bullshit my way through an effect and have it look cheap I looked for ways to embrace it and find a creative way around it. Gunshots, torture, anything that other movies would show I looked for ways to artistically imply.

I decided to take a page from Jaws and hopefully find higher ground through creative choices.

Q:  What was it like when it was over?

A:  After 25 days and $25,000 it was a huge relief to finally finish shooting. Like I had just ran a marathon. Our last day was at my parents’ house again and that felt appropriate. There had been a lot of growing up there.

When we finally had our last shot there was a lot of celebrating. Pictures. Champagne. Hugs. It was sad too. Bittersweet. That cast and crew really was like another family to me. I’ve worked with a number of crews since but that one was mine. We had been in the trenches together.

It was the hardest I had ever worked. I was fatigued both mentally and physically. And I was in debt. But it was also the greatest experience of my life.