I wiped the wet brow under my sweat-soaked cap and shut my eyes tight against the setting sun. The grips barked calls to one another across the city park parking lot while my D.P. presented me with the very real possibility that we might not get the shot. This was, after all, the most complicated scene in the entire film--a tense "oner" that would see a smoking gun, blood splatter, and a character fall to the ground. We needed, probably, at least an hour of rehearsals to get the timing and the performances right.
We had five minutes. Three after arguing for two over whether or not it was even worth trying.
* * *
For my second short film, I wanted to do something different. My first film, The Shift, was confined to only a handful of locations and fully two-thirds of it was, basically, two guys talking in a diner (but in a COMPELLING way! really!). The Two Hundred Fifth, on the other hand, would require many locations across Fresno and up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. More actors as well. And more crew, more extras, and more money. Thankfully, I was blessed with all of that. Everything I needed to tell my story.
But all the money and crew in the world isn't going to stop the inevitable from happening... and by inevitable I mean that moment(s) when you are absolutely certain the entire production is going to fall apart like my youngest daughter when she doesn't get the purple bowl at breakfast. Disaster is always just around the corner when making a movie. All film productions--from their inception on the blank page to the final sound mix--are true acts of faith. You have to believe that the film will be made. You have to take it as a given. Because otherwise, when problems arise (and they always do), you might go to the dark place, throw yourself on the ground, and thrash about until someone brings you the dang purple bowl like you asked for, puts the red cereal with the strawberries in it, and hands you the pink spoon.
As any parent will tell you, throwing a tantrum doesn't work and pink spoons aren't always readily available. You've got to deal with the reality and the situation--however unfortunate--you are actually in, not the one you planned for and counted on. That might mean wiping your tears and using one of mom and dad's metal spoons. Or, it might mean leaving the city park, reassembling your cast and crew later, and coming back another day.
Or, it might not.
* * *
"We're losing the light," Director of Photography Kyle Gentz told me at Clovis' Bicentennial Park on the evening of our second day of shooting. "Once it's gone, we're done."
"How long?" I asked.
"About 40 minutes. I think we need to call it."
"We're not gonna get it."
"No. We're not gonna get it."
"It" was THE scene of the movie. The pivot for the entire plot. There was no way the film could be called complete without it. But just doing it wasn't enough. This was our showstopper and it had to be done right or there was no point.
"I could do it hand held," Kyle said.
"I mean, will that work?" I didn't want to compromise the shot for the sake of expediency.
I looked out at the crew and the lights and the bounces and the C-stands and the RV and the porta-cool and the hair and makeup on standby and the script in my hand and my actors wilting after twelve long hours. And I looked at the sun disappearing below the unbending horizon. That horizon hated me.
Most complicated shot of the film. No rehearsal. At least five different points of timing manned by seven different people that had to be hit precisely and correctly or the shot was worthless. We'd get, at most, three takes. The next 20 minutes would make or break the film.
I planted my feet and squeezed hard on the rolled up script in my left hand. "Let's do it!"
* * *
The Two Hundred Fifth is the story of a seemingly young woman who repeats her same chronological life over and over again with all the memories of her previous lifetimes intact. A Groundhog Life, if you will. I wanted Ema Horvath to play Maxine Laret, the lead. I'd seen Ema's work up close almost a year earlier on an as-yet-unreleased Tremendum feature film and I knew from that what a temporarily-under-the-radar talent she truly is. The problem was that Ema, as you would expect, is a female. The lead in the story I'd written as a short story and a comic book over ten years ago was a male.
I'm making it sound like more of a struggle than it really was. Gender-flipping the main character was the first and easiest compromise I made on the short road to bringing 205 to life. Also, the best. I pounded out the script in five days and sent it over to Ema with the note that I'd written it just for her. Two days later, she texted me back a simple "I'm in." It felt like half my work was done already. Hire the right actor or actress and they'll make you look better as a director than you really are all day, every day.
The rest of the cast was filled out with Fresno locals like Michael Needham, Paul Pavelski, Greg Wike, Nancy O'Hara, Wyatt Daniels, and Gregory C. Tharpe. In L.A., I found an actress who so perfectly embodied the role of the best friend to whom Maxine reveals her secret that I could hardly believe it. Audrey Neal's was the first photo of hundreds I looked at that I immediately thought "Oh my gosh, that's her." Her chemistry with Ema in the audition was almost supernatural.
For the crew, I reached out to, I'm telling you, the top talents for many, many miles. People like Director of Photography Kyle Gentz, Gaffer Ian Mcaleece, Key Grip/Producer Cody Fletcher, Wardrobe Supervisor Trina Short, Hair Supervisor Jenny Pauline-Mendoza, Makeup Supervisor Amber Medina, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Composers Josh Mendoza and Justin Rosander, Food Master/Producer Richie Mirelez, 1st A.D. Bear Dupras, 1st A.C. Troy Ruff, Production Designers Max Martinez & Renee Mason, Sound Engineer Tyler Smith, and many more. Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff even signed on as Executive Producers. Shooting took place in Fresno, Clovis, and Shaver Lake during the first week of September, 2017. It was an absolute whirlwind of location permits, seventeen (!) script drafts, hot days, crises, laughter, and a diminishing sun always at our backs.
MONDAY, SEPT. 4: We started with what I thought was the hardest day (it wasn't). Fresno Christian High School was good enough to allow us to use their gym, but we had nearly seven pages of material to get through over three scenes. And 50 plus extras to work with. 2nd Assistant Director, Nicole Spate, was a rock star, helping to make sitting on bleachers for hours and hours on end and watching two college girls talk about how one of them was going to marry a twelve year old (!) way more fun than it should have been. I was determined to get every shot I wanted, and I was sure I could. Faith, remember? The first half of the day, we did it. Every shot, done, even if we did go over. The second half of the day wasn't so lucky; I had robbed Peter to pay Paul.
This would turn into somewhat of a theme for the length of the shoot.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 5: We started the day at my house, in my daughter's bedroom. I had thought that using such a familiar location would make things easier, but that's because sometimes I'm stupid. Multiple issues arose, most stemming from the fact that I was trying to turn a suburban home into a college dorm and, although you can fake a brick wall, that doesn't mean the brick wall has to like it. Or stay up. Shots were abandoned. Producer/Key Grip Cody Fletcher fixed the problems that just kept on coming despite his best efforts. Then, two hours later than we should have, we went to the city park for our big killing.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 6: The first scene was simple enough: Maxine and Cat in a drive-thru, purchasing milkshakes. We never could quite get the cooperation of the fast food place to do it, so instead we just kind of... did it. Guerrilla style, from inside the car. Each take was another trip through the drive thru and another milkshake purchase. By the time we were done everyone in the crew was full of icy, milky goodness. At night, we staged a cop pull-over in downtown Fresno to the attention of not one bystander thanks to the cooperation of the Fresno Police Dept. and the presence of an actual police vehicle, lights flashing and everything.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 7: An hour and a half's drive took us all up to Shaver Lake and the Dinkey Creek Bridge. I knew the bridge from camping with my family as a kid, and as far as I knew no one had ever captured it on film. After enduring 100+ degree heat all Summer long, the bitter, 60- degree cold was a lot to handle. Both for our shivering actresses (who, thankfully, got some quick wardrobe adjustments), and for our generators that put out about half as much power thanks to the altitude. Delays and rethinking of the lights needed to illuminate the bridge properly pushed shooting back by many hours, forcing a focused, amped Audrey and a sick-but-no-less-focused Ema to capture their characters' most emotional moments in a short spurt of shooting at the end of a very long night. I drove Audrey to the train station directly afterwards, finally crashing into my bed at 7:30 in the morning, almost 24 hours after I'd left it.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 8: Thanks to my late morning sleep, I completely missed one of the biggest disasters threatening to derail the entire production. This day, our last, was our big funeral scene. At 8am, our hearse and casket cancelled on us. This was epically bad. Renting a hearse and (especially) a casket isn't something you just do. That we got them at all outside of L.A. was a miracle as it was. Now, we had to repeat the miracle? In a matter of hours? Impossible. Thankfully, these were not my thoughts to think that morning. Instead, Nicole Spate and Propsmaster Rob Vargas stepped up and found a company, Churches of Death, willing to help us out. By the time I woke up, the problem was solved.
The rest of the day went much more smoothly. We ended the shoot with a simple flashback scene at a swanky North Fresno home. The last days of shoots are always fun. Everyone is so much more relaxed and the pressure of the next day of shooting is off. A house shoot turned into more of a house party than anything. When it all wrapped up at about 1am that night, I was... relieved. To say the least. Disaster, for the most part, had been averted.
* * *
Tuesday night, three days before picture wrap, we ran through the shot three times as a rehearsal. Out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. Again, out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. And again. Not a one of the rehearsals was 100% dialed in, but we were losing the light way too quickly to not start rolling.
We rolled film. Out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. The blood wasn't timed right, the actors didn't quite land where they should, and the death was all wrong. Again and again we did it. The blood kept not being right--either it was too much or too little--and the sun kept on setting. Shirts had to be changed, clean ones put on again and again. We were still losing the light. Almost gone now.
And we still had at least five more shots to get after we got our "oner" done.
Finally, on our last chance take, everything clicked into place. The camera went where it should when it should, the blood sprayed just the right amount, and the camera landed perfectly for the reveal.
"Keep rolling!" I shouted.
Now that we had it, we just turned that successful take into the next one and shot the aftermath of the big kill in real-time. Then, lense changes for the close-ups. Quickly. Then, reverse angles. In a blur, we got the shots and our actresses gave such devastating performances. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe we'd done it.
But, we still had one last shot to get.
It was a simple shot--a car driving onto the street--but getting it required a new setup on the other side of the city park parking lot, the traffic to cooperate, and our actors to hear us shouting directions at them as they drove away. We tried a few takes with no luck. The traffic just wouldn't let the car onto the street with the speed we wanted.
Then, finally, with the light absolutely dying on us, the car sped out of the parking lot and into the distance and... we got the shot. We wrapped the day. On our faces you could see all the efforts and stresses that had been poured into that final hour. It was hard to believe we pulled it off. Weeks later, I still can't believe it.
Then, less than two minutes after that, an ice cream truck pulled into the parking lot and barreled its way through our set. We--all of us--burst out laughing. Had that ice cream truck arrived any earlier we'd have been crying.
Someone shouted "GET THE PETTY CASH!" as a joke, but it sounded like a good idea to me. The cast and crew that looked like they'd just been through a war suddenly turned into smiling and laughing children as they swarmed the ice cream truck and picked out whatever they wanted. The vendor charged me $20 flat because he sold it all so quickly he honestly had no idea how many he'd sold or what. I think we got the better end of that deal.
It was the perfect end to our hardest day and it couldn't have gone better if I'd planned it.
Which, of course, I didn't. Something unexpected (and, in this case, delightful) happened and I just steered into the skid, believing it was the thing to do. That's basically film production in a nutshell.
Brock Heasley is an award-winning filmmaker at Tremendum Pictures. His first film, THE SHIFT, is now showing in film festivals across the United States. THE TWO HUNDRED FIFTH is currently in post-production.