The Day to End All Days
We had two days in which to shoot our ghost character. Chelsea Miller (pictured above), who played our ghost, lived in upstate New York, so she wasn’t readily available. We had a full day planned to shoot her major scenes. These were her scenes in the climax of the story as well as her introduction in the film. The shots were pretty simple, not a lot of set-ups, but essential.
We were shooting on the campus of Brooklyn College, and there was a classroom that we could kind of make look like the cellar where the ghost was being held captive by an evil spirit. On one of the days we arrived on set early in the morning, and we started to get ready to shoot. Just then, a student entered and informed us we didn’t have the room reserved. He had booked the room for that time. So we tried another room, got set to shoot and the same thing happened. Then, because the third time’s the charm, we went to another room, and same thing happened once again. Then one of us got the idea to shoot in the film lab room which looked terrible, but was available. We decided if we didn’t light the room and just lit Chelsea, we could make it work.
By now, it was mid-day, and we were way behind schedule, so we headed across campus to see if we could get something on film before we broke for lunch. To move the equipment, we had a large bin with wheels, so we loaded it up and rolled it across campus. The way the campus was set up, we had to cross the street to get to the film lab room. As we got to the curb, we were stopped by a campus security guard who asked to see our manifest, the list of equipment list we had from the school. We told him we were just crossing the street to get to another part of campus, but he told us, “As soon as you wheel that bin into the street, technically you’re off campus, so I need to see your manifest for this equipment. You can’t take equipment off campus without it.” So we looked for the manifest, and it was nowhere to be found. We realized we didn’t have it–it was back at the DP’s apartment. Now we had to send someone to get the list. At this point, I’d already lost my location three times in one morning, so I gave up and I sent Patrick, our DP, back to his place to get the list.
Once he returned, we were able to cross the street and get to the room in the other building. It looked terrible, and it didn’t match the room we had previously shot for the cellar, but whatever. I needed to get the shots, so we proceeded.
This was the climactic scene of the movie, where the ghost, having been freed from her imprisonment, goes into the light. I wanted the light to be directly over her head as if coming from heaven, but we didn’t have a C stand to hang the light from, so I got the brilliant idea to have one of the crew members hold the light like a boom mic over the actress’s head. We were using a 1,000 watt light which got quite hot, so for safety, we tested the technique by using our gaffer as a stand-in. We held the light directly over his head for a bit when he said, “I think it’s too hot…. I think my hair is burning.” Lo and behold, his hair was starting to smoke, so we vetoed that idea. Finally we were able to achieve the effect I wanted by lighting her from a high angle without burning her wig off.
We made it through the day. Chelsea was wrapped, and we got some good stuff on film. We decided to go back to the DP’s apartment for a dear-God-what-a-long-day beer. As I pulled up to his house, I got out of my car and immediately stepped in a pile of dog shit. The perfect ending to a perfect day, right? Our gaffer remarked that he’s seen quite a few student film shoots, but nothing quite compared to that day. When I was ready to head home, I went downstairs to find a parking ticket on my windshield at ONE MINUTE after midnight. Ugh…
At that point in my life, I thought filmmaking was horrible, and after that day I seriously considered whether or not I ever wanted to make another movie. It felt like I had a “kick me” sign on my back. I felt like I was cursed. Every lost location, missing paperwork, singed hair, pile of dog shit, and no parking sign had become a bad omen sent to me from the almighty film gods telling me not to continue.
Samuel Fuller once said “Film is a battleground.” Some days you have to fight. The good news is it gets better. I’ve found that even thought I still have tough days on set, when I’m fighting my way through the day, I have confidence I’ll get through it because of my past experience. The more experience you have, the better prepared you are, and the better your days will be.