By Chris Hood
[This is Part Twelve of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmaker on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com, in Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 ]
Long before the cameras roll on Day One, you'll have prepared a mountain of paperwork. There will be deal memos for cast and crew, a pile of docs for SAG if it's a union show, rental contracts, insurance forms, screenplay/story rights agreement, call sheets, contact information directory, copyright registration, day out of days list, budgets, and hundreds if not thousands of emails. But the piece of paper that is going to most help focus the direction of the shoot is the production schedule.
Prior to the start of photography (hopefully far enough in advance to mitigate undue stress), the plan needs to be laid out as to what order in which to shoot the scenes of the film. This is dictated by a number of factors that all have to be juggled to create the most practical production schedule. A surprising number of factors will affect how this is put together, but the main ones will be talent availability, location availability, nudity/sex scenes and prop/talent demands.
In a perfect world, talent availability is a minor issue when it comes to scheduling in that the actors make themselves are available for the production in whatever capacity is necessary. In the real world, especially in the world of low-budget filmmaking, this tends to get more complicated. Some of your cast may very well have other jobs that you have to work around. Generally, I recommend avoiding this situation but it does sometimes present itself and must be dealt with. What you really want is an actor who will take the time off or get the time off they need to make the production the priority, but when you're not paying your people terribly well and/or the reality is that they have to go back to making a "real" living after the week or two or three that you employ, the impracticality of this sometimes becomes evident.
Many regular jobs are very accommodating and this is a talk that needs to be had prior to locking down your casting decisions. Invariably, problems will arise that cause the production schedule to change and your talent needs to be able to work around that. Although you're sure you know which six days you need an actor a month or a week before production starts, there is any number of occurrences that can change that. The last think you want to hear in moments like that is, "Yeah, I can't get that day off, but I can do it the day after."
Also be prepared for your bigger actors to potentially cause you problems. Again, this is not terribly uncommon. It happened recently to me on Dirty Dealing 3D with our star Michael Madsen. He was in Russia shooting a film just before ours. He was supposed to wrap there on a Monday and be to us, ready to work, by Wednesday. Everything was good to go based on that. The problem was the other production fell behind and they had to keep him a few more days. We weren't going to have him Wednesday. We weren't going to have him Thursdays. We "might" have him Saturday. At that point, all the planning we had done for his time on set went to shit, so we had to scramble to make concessions and find other things to shoot on those "lost" days. It's never a simple fix. Locations that were locked weeks in advance may not be able to accommodate the changes. Other talent that was prepared to work on Day X may have difficulty switching to Day Y. Special props, equipment, vehicles or other needs have to be rescheduled which can create additional complications as well. This can be a tremendous headache that does more than create stress and cost time, it can result in very serious financial implications as well.
Securing locations was discussed earlier, but how they are stacking into your production schedule can require a degree of skill and creativity as well. In some cases, locations are a no-brainer. If you're shooting for 4 weeks at a cabin in the woods owned by your uncle, all is warm and fuzzy (until a disfigured maniac with an ax shows up to piss on the party!). On a more location-heavy production, you'll be dealing with places that may have any number of requirements or restrictions.
You'll often be shooting in businesses that you can't afford to "buy out". Just about any place will close down and give you full run of the joint for a certain amount of money. This is what big productions do, but you likely won't have the resources for that…and you certainly can't ask a business to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars to do you a favor. So the concession that is often made is that they'll let you shoot around their operational business. The could be mean shooting off hours (often overnight) or actually grabbing what you need during the regular operation of the business. I shouldn't have to explain the potential complications that can arise from this, but there are times when it's unavoidable.
I've now shot two films in casinos. Great production value. Very difficult locations to operate in. As casinos are open 24 hours and can't be "bought out" by small productions like ours, we work around the fact that the business will still be buzzing around us. This brings with it additional noise which in some cases you simply have to deal with. In some cases you can politely ask someone to try to keep it quiet when you're rolling, but when you're paying a casino a few thousand a day to shoot, they don't want you asking the obnoxious drunk betting $5000 a hand a blackjack to "keep it down" no matter how nicely you intend to ask. Or if it's Ben Affleck, you can just wait until they "86" him from the place!
In addition, when you don't control a location, you have to worry about the integrity of your shots. People will wander into the frame, either accidentally or on purpose. People will stare at the camera. They'll point. They might walk up to a star, oblivious to the fact that the cameras are rolling, and ask for a handshake or autograph. Generally you'll have people "locking down" the set as much as possible to prevent things like this, but the larger the location, the harder it is to fill all those holes.
If you have a good locations coordinator, he'll have built good relationships with your locations and be able to help rework the shooting schedule as needed when these problems do arise. But you should know well in advance what the contingency plans are if there's any chance a location could bow out on you. Many business and home owners don't realize how much of a disruption and hassle a film crew can bet. It has been known to happen after a long day of shooting in the first of several days at a location, the production is met with a "Yeah, I don't think coming back tomorrow is a good idea." If and when that happens, you'll have a back-up plan, right? (Crying profusely doesn't count…though crying and begging might…which I've done…but I'll save that story for another day)
Another on my short list of key factors when setting the production schedule is if there is any nudity and/or sex scenes in the film. Although nudity and sex can absolutely bolster the marketability of your film, it can be a lot of headaches. Unfortunately, there are some very disingenuous people out there. I regularly hear about actresses who agree to do nudity in a film and later "change their mind". Conveniently, this usually happens toward the end of production when the actress has proven herself irreplaceable. Now, if you've done your job correctly, you'll already have a deal memo in place that clearly lays out the nudity and simulated sex requirements of the role in unimpeachable detail and clarity. Sadly, it usually makes no difference when you're in the third or fourth week of your shoot and an actress decides to back out on this. Yes, you have it in writing. Yes, you can technically fire her and go back and reshoot all the scenes you've already gotten with her and you have a breach of contract suit against the actress that you can absolutely win. And yet you already know it's probably never, ever going to be worth it. So you're stuck. (another good time to cry, in fact).
The fix is to never put yourself in this position to begin with. If at all possible, shoot out the nudity and sex at the beginning of a picture. I do it as close to Day One as possible. Do it when it's still easy to replace someone and they'll be far less inclined to try to stunt.
A fascinating side note on this is how short-sighted actors can be. This is a small business. Everyone seems to know and acknowledge that, yet people consistently make foolish decisions that lessen their already tiny chance of success in it. On Dirty Dealing, I had the very same issue with a sex scene I've been warning you about. In this case, the scheduling was unavoidable because the scene involved one of our "name" male actors who wasn't going to be on set until the last week. Sure enough, the actress shows up and informs us that she is suddenly concerned about the nudity.
Interestingly, she did a fully nude scene on Day One for a calendar shoot which would be a prop in the film (see below), yet now expressed concerns about her sex scene. Although her contract clearly stated "fully nudity" in the sex scene, I know I didn't need anything to that degree, so she was given a "patch" to put over her ladyparts. Seems that wasn't enough. She insisted on wearing pasties over her nipples as well. She was aware of the contract and the fact that she was in breach and simply didn't care. We were stuck. We shot the scene the only way she would do it and I think the film suffers a bit for it.
Several months later, I was telling a domestic buyer about the film and he mentioned that the actress looked familiar. Turns out, someone he knew had done a small film with her a year earlier. I mentioned I had some problems with her and his response was, "Let me guess? She screwed you over on the nudity thing!" Wow. This girl had done one film before mine and already had a reputation in the business for being dishonest and difficult to work with.
What's so odd is that for all her posturing and dishonestly, she's still featured fully nude earlier in the film anyway, so she accomplished nothing more than reinforcing a bad reputation she had even prior to our project. And don't think I haven't loved when other producers/directors have called and asked, "What was it like working with her?" Small world. Smaller brain.
I mentioned "prop & talent prep demands" as another element that can dictate your production schedule, though this may well not have any bearing on your film. In many movies, there will be items needed in the film that will require advance preparation. The most common of these is photographs of people in the film which will be used as props. This is usually done before production begins since it's not part of the actual movie, unless there is also video of when the photos were taken. However, if the time doesn't allow prior preparation, this is something that has to be done in a timely fashion so those props can be ready for when they are needed on set.
With the cast of Dirty Dealing, the girls in the film do a nude calendar which they sell as part of a fundraiser. Not only did we need the calendars as props in the film, we needed footage of the girls actually at the calendar shoot. Obviously this had to be done first on the production. Aside from addressing the nudity concerns mentioned above, we had just a few days to have the graphic artists put the calendar together and get it to the printer so they would have a week to print those props. You'll also find other cases where there will be things like surveillance footage or news footage that you'll be needing in the film that may dictate how, when and where you can shoot elements as needed.
Another factor that falls into this category is pretty obvious, but when actors are expected to go through significant physical changes, the entire production needs to be understandably structured around that. This usually results in breaking up the shoot to give the performer ample time to make the changes which in some cases can be extreme, such as Robert Deniro in Raging Bull or Tom Hanks in Castaway. Of course, if you absolutely, positively can't work around it, you can always get an actor or actress to drop 15-20 pounds overnight…simply remove a limb.
Be prepared for anything as there will be other factors unique to your show which will have a bearing on scheduling. This part can prove to be utterly frustrating in many ways as you can have literally dozens of different elements that need to be juggled and pieced in various ways until you have a schedule that seems to accommodate all those needs…and then at some point all that work might go to hell when something unexpected jumps up and bites you in the ass. But this is why I keep a whipping boy on set to relieve the stress. I would just have a whipping dog, but PETA wouldn't allow it. And besides, what use are children besides making shoes in sweat shops and objects on which to vent your anger?
Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as "Counterpunch" starring Danny Trejo and "Dirty Dealing 3D" with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is obviously not a parent. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He's also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)