Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Returning the material

One difference between film and writing is how much material it takes. Even if you’re using a laptop, you can write anywhere with a plug in the wall. Worse-case scenario, you run out of batteries, there’s always pen and paper. To make a film, you need cameras and lights, and both need not only tripods or stands, and filters, lenses, gels, but also power, an a maze of cables and powerboards, which you must gaffer tape on walls or floors. It was reminiscent of rock music for me. I was working in Paris with a rock-band, All Angels Gone, writing lyrics for them. I remember, rehearsals and setting up, how long wiring took – that kind of electric art, amplified music or cinema, does not survive on breathing air, it’s technical, it’s heavy- weight, and it’s a truckload of stuff to move around.

Some of the equipment for Honey Pot we borrowed from a director friend of Nghi, called Huu, who lives in Sunshine. The rest of the stuff, generators and camera, we rented from Normanby road. Since we were shooting on the beach over two nights, all of this material had to be stored somewhere and moved around in a car. I had thought that my apartment in the city centre would be convenient for storing, but I hadn’t calculated that you can’t easily park on my Swanston Street doorstep; and so we found ourselves walking half blocks or full blocks, avoiding pedestrians and week-enders, heavily loaded with our gear.

But returning the rental stuff was the worst. After two nights of shooting, and an after party that finishes at 3AM, the last thing you want is to wake up at 9AM and return a couple of generators and an arc lamp to a warehouse in Port Melbourne. It would have been half OK, if Melbourne taxis were not incompetent. Ours didn’t have a map of the city, couldn’t use his GPS, and hardly spoke English. I had to navigate him through South Melbourne after he almost took us onto some high-speed urban highway. I generally smile at people, no matter what, they’re trying their best. This guy didn’t get a wink; and it was wonderful for Joy and I to sponge our tensions out onto him.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


I remember talking to a fabulous indigenous photographer called Darren Siwes in Adelaide about four years ago, when I was doing research for a documentary film on ghosts in Australia. Darren creates these eery night-time landscapes, using a simple double exposure technique: he sets his tripod somewhere – usually framing some sort of suburban landscape – opens the lid for a while, then covers it, goes to stand in the picture, and has someone lift the lid again. This way, his body is captured on the film for only half of the exposure time, and appears as a fleeting indigenous presence, hovering above an everyday suburban setting: simple, powerful. He made me realize, in very concrete terms, that photography consisted in capturing reflected light on film. I hadn’t quite realized until Honey Pot that cinema was the same, and that you needed lighting to make things appear.

I had delegated the lighting entirely to Joy, but all of the people she contacted to act as gaffer fell through. Then a friend from work directed me to Mitch, a French editor and cinematographer who was on a working holiday visa in Melbourne. I contacted Mitch and his friend Gwladys, asking them if they’d be available to help. Mitch was very French in his attitude – suspicious as first, and then very warm when he got to know me better and saw the project was solid. He was professional throughout.
But I never thought it would involved so much. Mitch came to my place the day before shooting to check the lights we had from Huu. There were two spiral economy bulbs, one powerful halogen type, and a little dedo battery powered light. Mitch was concerned: the spiral economy bulbs had bluish light, the halogen was yellow. “You want stable whites”, he repeated, “otherwise you can’t edit properly.” I didn’t know anything about a stable white, but I got the general idea. You can change the colouring on computer, add a bit of red, diminish the blues. But all frames need to be lit evenly, especially in terms of colour balance; otherwise, it’s endless work.

The way to deal with a set of mismatching coloured lights is the same as making white hair even – cover yellow with blue, and vice-versa. We only had to find some type of yellow gels or material for the spiral lights, and a light blue fabric for the halogen. Except it was Good Friday, and all shops were closed. On shooting day though – Saturday – I had a lucky strike. I was looking for dark felt to cover a wall corner, in case the actors tripped over and banged their head. I didn’t really know where to find it, but there’s a big craft shop in a gallery below my apartment, so I tried it. Lucky me: they were selling fabric, and they had rolls of light cotton muslin in all kinds of shades. I got a cut of pale blue and two cuts of pale canary yellow; back home, I tried holding them over the lights – it worked, it balanced off the colours, and made a beautiful even white.
On shooting day though, fixing the lights ended up being the most time-consuming activity. The municipal neons were definitely not enough, we needed more if we wanted our film to be more than a grey cloud.

When I studied history of art, ages ago, I remember writing a paper on light sources in Vermeer and Rubens. How precise it was, how calculated, how meaningful. But there were different constraints here. We needed to see something, the lights had bulky stands under them, and they couldn’t be in the frame. So we moved them around after almost every shot, trying to bounce them off walls at least, hoping to create an illusion that it was all ambient lighting. So much I hadn’t planned. Hopefully, when all is edited, it won’t show too much.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Shooting – second day

When you’re shooting, the main concern is time. I learnt my lesson first hand on dress rehearsal day. I confirmed upon shooting. Things always take longer than you thought. There’s a malicious resistance of the real: you run the whole process over in your mind, even visualising it: so and so grabs the lamps while so and so moves the camera, etc. But then someone trips over, someone forgets a bottle, a cable makes a knot, and you lose a minute. Multiply by the number of shots, and before you realize, you’re fifteen minutes or half an hour behind schedule.
The first night had been bad for timing. We hadn’t worked out the light before, so we needed to make decisions, and it took time. Well, we had a plan to shoot all of scene 2, 3 and 4. When I saw the schedule, I said ‘it won’t happen’. It was a way to make sure that even if an actor broke a leg or the toilet block exploded, we could make a film. By the end of day one, we had all of the shots for scene 2, one shot of scene 4, and about half of the shots for scene 3. A good third under the plan, but still, all of the film was in the box.
Before the second night of shooting, Nghi looked at all the footage. It was good, overall, but two shots needed re-doing, because a lamp appeared on the frame, in a corner. And one part of the dance sequence was not covered by any shot. More stress.
Luckily for us, our days of shooting corresponded to the end of daylight saving. It meant an earlier nightfall, one more hour. We would start with the end of the dance sequence. But my direction had been clear: Nghi, no matter what, we’re shooting scene 1 – the opening sequence, outside – at 10 o’clock. Unbelievably, we were very early for that. And shooting the outside sequence took us only 45 minutes.
I think I shrieked or jumped or both with joy when that was over; then we set up the lights for our bonus shot of Nick walking away along the beach and doing a nice happy jump. Serge and a friend of his arrived on the set by then, saying hello. I was in the last scene, didn’t have much time to chat, but Nghi and Matthew took care of them, while we finished.
We packed everything – the crew did, I was sitting down, exhausted, next to the cars. Then we returned everything to my place, and a few people had a last drink of campari cocktails. It was over, for that part at least.

Shooting – first day

This was my first ever day of directing a film. It was beautiful, but intense. I’m used to writing books, which is a very different type of activity; you’re alone for most of the time, self-reliant. This first shooting was an eye-opener the collaborative nature of cinema.

Collaboration sounds beautiful, but it’s always threatening to degenerate into chaos; and as director, I was the main person in charge of imposing order on the set. Not that I disliked the task. But it was the first time in my life that I had to ask someone to get me water, because I didn’t have time to get it myself.

Fourteen people were there. Some had very clearly defined roles: Nick and Matthew were acting, Jamila was fixing their make-up, Joy was behind the camera with Ivan assisting her, Mitch was setting up the lights with help from Gwladys, and Joe was outside doing security. But other people’s tasks were much less clearly defined: Nghi was coordinating the set – basically, that meant I turned to him whenever I wanted something, and he somehow made it happen; Naomi and Flic were watching over choreography and costumes, but also helped lift cables or bring water to people; Rena, Julian and Amir had come to help, and found themselves scrubbing the toilet or carrying packs around as soon as the picnic finished.

The four something hours of shooting themselves passed in a flash. Before I realized, it was over, the urinal scene was shot, half of the dance sequence was in the box, it was 11h15, and we had to pack everything out. Something was released, a tension that had been building for the last month or so. I laughed, a long, liberating nervous laughter, that had everyone turn to me. I was light-headed, dizzy, couldn’t really think straight, and in the end, I sat watching the crew pack up everything, listening to the sound of the waves, and smiling.

Saturday, 10 April 2010


From the start of the project, we said ‘oh, we need someone to do the make-up’, but somehow, always considered it a non-priority. Still, there were going to be close ups, and if not properly made-up, faces shine, complexions change, and a patch of red or yellow blurs off the sexiness of a cheek or jawbone.
Flic was always our plan B for that – she’s got experience modelling, she’s got a box of products, and she can make-do. She did the make-up for us on rehearsal day. I had my lesson then on giving orders. We were bantering with Matthew on how I’d have him turned into a full-on drag-queen. Then I added, ‘for Nick, I was thinking green eyeshadows’, laughed, and focused on setting up the camera. Next thing, I turn to my actors, and I see Flic finishing up Nick’s eye in beautiful grass green. They should have warning signs, like they do in Australian airports about bombs: making-up is no laughing matter. You’ll be obeyed, be clear in your orders.
Nick was shooting a commercial after the dress rehearsal. He asked his make-up artist there if she knew anyone, she recommended a school, and the school recommended Jamila. That’s how you recruit a crew. Jamila was keen to get experience, and thoroughly professional about the job. She was on time, had clear questions and requests, and had all the necessary products already.

She was precious on set. It’s very good, in the stress of things, to delegate one area of responsibility entirely. I didn’t have to think about make-up once on shooting times: I could see Jamila constantly running after Nick and Matthew, tap tapping their faces with mysterious green wipes, and re-powdering their noses matt.

Friday, 9 April 2010


Moving to Sandridge Beach, as the council had suggested, was not the end of our problems. Again, the official permit woman disappeared, and we were passed to some half-competent newby, who first was waiting for various mysterious 'recommendations', and then said she wanted us to go to Elwood. Furious, I wrote an email to the councillor. I didn't know him personally, but I knew he was French and supportive of the arts. He answered my email rightaway, and was extremely helpful. He couldn’t and wouldn’t impose anything on the council, but he could and did shake the machine a bit, asking a few questions, and suggesting that they get someone to actually deal with  my permit application before shooting was due. It wasn’t absolute magic – I still had to wait about a week for various recommendations and other meetings to take place. And after a few days of excruciating anxious waiting, I got a phone call from the helpful second woman, recommending... Elwood again. I think I got a bit sharp and crisp. I firmly said, I cannot, this is a scandal, and I'm not happy. The tone was right. She rang her supervisor, and agreed to go with me to Sandridge, in order to assess the location together. She did get out of her way, big time - I called her civil servant of the month! - meeting me at 7h30 on Sandridge Beach. I’m not sure what it was for. I told her where the camera would be, where the lighting would be. She couldn't see a problem. It was, apparently, just about assessing the risk of disturbing residents. And she agreed that it was a beautiful place for a film.

Cathy did advise we should hire a security guard, though. There had been a violent attack in the previous year, and it was a remote location. Also, I had to come back in the evening and drop letters in the residents’ mailboxes, to inform them of the shooting dates and time. So I took the bus 250 from the top of Clarendon, did my mail-dropping, and met with my partner on the Albert Park Beach to have a relaxing fish and chips.

The following day, I got the permit in my inbox. I did think and hope everything would be simple and settled once we got the permit. It wasn’t. 5h45, I got a phonecall. 'Hello, I’m a resident, and I’m wondering about your project. You're shooting a film, what's the film about?' I told him ‘it’s a comedy’ – I knew my line of argument. But he wanted more details. So I told him the while storyline. ‘It’s a gay film then.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you realize it’s the biggest beat in Melbourne. Hundreds of men come to have sex here everyday. It’s wrong. You’re encouraging it. Don’t do it. We’ll prevent it. My neighbours, they're very angry with it. They'll have their dogs barking.’ I spent half an hour on the phone, diplomatically trying to explain that, I’d been tossed around by the council, that I had invested considerable and a bit of money in the project, and, also, that Honey Pot was about a man deciding to NOT have sex in the beat, so that if anything, I was 'discouraging it'. He never quite got that last point - 'that's shit arse' - but the other ones, when repeated often enough, somehow broke through. Particularly the fight against helpless bureaucrats. I promised I would ‘try to talk to the producer and council about what could be done to shoot somewhere else’ – I did, I always keep my promises; Nghi said, shoot on Sandbridge. The council didn't answer the phone. He threatened a bit more, but said he’d ‘let me go’ cause he could see that I was a ‘fair bloke’, and I'd been 'conned by the council'.

That phone call did make me feel threatened however. I called Nghi for advice, and he agreed that we should get a security guard. National security services normally takes care of the place. They're in charge of locking up and patrolling at night. We phoned them for a quote. It was expensive, at about 45 dollars an hour, it would be close to 500 for the whole two nights – it was Easter week-end after all – but the guard they sent us, Joe, was extremely friendly, reassuring, and helpful. He gave us Easter egg chocolates, and offered to drop two our crew in Brunswick on his way back home – we gave him a thank you bottle of red, and a warm gush of praise when the company called us for feedback.

In the end, there were no resident issues, no marches or even  barking dogs. But there were people passing by, wanting to use the bathroom. So Joe directed them to the women’s, while keeping an eye on our generators. I had a moment of concernt on the second night: a resident went in the males to have a shower after his evening run, while Nick and Matthew were changing. Joe let him go in, though we officially had the place to ourselves already – it was after sunset – but he warned him that he should be quick, as we'd start shooting soon. The resident didn’t protest or do anything to block off the shoot. He had his shower, then peacefully retreated home. And everything went smooth.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Feeding the troops

On his previous film, The Probationer, Nghi had promised everyone food, friends and fun. A minimum for volunteer workers. This time, the first of these was my responsibility; being the French man, it made a bit of sense. I was originally planning to cook one of my budget banquets of aubergines in tomato sauce, homemade hummus, parsley-rich tabouleh, asparagus omelette, and herring trio. But I’d been so shaken by the permit thing that I decided I would rather spend a bit of money, and just buy everything.

On shooting day, Nghi came to my place around 10AM to drop some equipment, and out we went to the Queen Vic Market. We ended up with a French style picnic of dried sausage, pâté and cheese plus Mediterranean dips, some good bread, and fruit for dessert. Nghi is not used to markets, obviously, and seemed to find me immensely entertaining as I perused the stalls, weight-lifted rockmelons, or ordered a never-ending assortment of bread-loafs.

Saturday, 3 April 2010


When you’re about to shoot, you suddenly realise why crew lists are so long on films. Every detail matters. For instance, I suddenly thought today that the shirts had been stored in a suitcase, and would be crumpled. I checked, and they were – now I need to plan on how to iron them. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to think of all this as director; or rather, I should have to think about all this, but be able to delegate everything rightaway – hair, costume, light – to the person in charge. Instead, I find myself, on the day of the shooting, not only hoovering and cleaning my apartment in anticipation of people staying over, but also listing last minute items we may need – extra security pins for the police badge, padding for the walls, oven proof paper to diffuse the light, in case… Exhausting.