Sunday, July 12, 2015

10 Things I Learned from Directing "The Circle"

On Friday, June 19, we wrapped seven of the hardest, most exhausting days of my life. It was hot. It was cold. It was wet. It was dusty. The air smelled like horses, the location smelled like a museum, and we all smelled….well….too busy to do anything but shoot “The Circle.” It was stressful, it was chaotic, and it was absolutely wonderful.

Here are 10 things I learned about directing “The Circle,” and I promise you...every single time I do something like this I’m reminded of how much I still don’t know.

The Feeling Hasn’t Changed

In June 2014, many of the cast and crew of “The Circle” shot “Sacred” with Redeemer’s Song Ministries in Fergus Falls. However, this particular story is nothing like “Sacred,” and the way everything was done was hardly similar at all. Instead of shooting in two weeks, Christ Company Resources could only afford to shoot in one, and we lived on site for seven days to see it happen.

Now, I’ve been directing for fifteen years and I’m pleased to say that my production anxiety has decreased with every show. I continue to grow more confident in the process and in the people. But, the excitement is always the same. When I woke up Saturday morning of June 13, the first day of production, I woke up very early because my body just knew I was back to doing the job I love the most. The emotion and the feeling in the pit of my stomach was all-too familiar, and I recognized it instantly. Not fear, not even stress, but a very strong, passion-driven longing to just be there. I experienced it every day with “Sacred,” when the joy of the job became my alarm clock in the earliest hour and when the love I have for these people and what we do became the driving force to push through late hours to finish scenes. I knew that the week of “The Circle” would be very much the same emotionally for me. I knew I would get little rest, a lot of exercise, and have absolutely no appetite at all. I also knew that the last day would be the hardest day of all, and on the morning of June 13, I was already dreading the very last day of production.

Sleep Is Optional, but Strongly Recommended

There’s a reason Hollywood, large-budget and low-budget independent production companies, do not film a full-length movie in seven days. It isn’t possible. Not really. At least, it shouldn’t be without at least three production units filming all at one time. I knew it was crazy when I submitted the production schedule to the cast and crew. I knew living on site would only slightly cushion this attempt, but money often trumps practicality. To rent the equipment we rented, to secure the cast we had, to pull my husband away from our church in Texas only long enough to do this, we financially needed to shoot in seven days. With a little resignation and with a lot of resolution I knew that in art it hardly made a difference what kind of cost was associated with this...because we’d do it regardless. And we did. We were still foolish enough to try, because my cast and crew believed in me.

Most days the majority of us pulled sixteen to eighteen, sometimes twenty hour days. Daily I’d watch everybody work: setting up shots, directing wardrobe, preparing food props, cleaning the location, delivering meals, bringing water, rehearsing lines, tilling and planting the garden….yes, even planting a garden...and my heart swelled with pride, humility, and gratitude. It still does. Paid workers have a friendlier schedule. But honestly...sometimes paid workers don’t even work this hard.

I Still Hate Outhouses

When I watch footage, I laugh. When the camera starts rolling early, we are still waiting for the sound man to call speed and for the actors to take their places. Suddenly,the camera catches a glimpse of cast and crew members (sometimes only one at a time) hiking up the giant hill to the road to make use of the most humblest of accommodations: the privy (or, as we know it, the site bathroom). Our location, the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher’s Reunion grounds in Rollag, Minnesota, is the most rural, rustic location we’ve shot at so far, and that means down to almost every detail. There’s nothing romantic about shooting a movie in this way. It’s the kind of place where you wonder why the lights aren’t turned on, or if something is down there waiting to jump out at you….or where you calculate what you would do if somebody fell in and couldn’t get out. That particular week, telling the assistants that you’re going to the bathroom wasn’t just a director’s logistical request…it was a safety precaution.

And not once did I ever hear a complaint.

Why do we do this? Because this is one of the best reasons to shoot at a place like this:

You just don’t get a picture like that anywhere. The farmstead is a reconstruction, and we were surprised to learn that the characters’ house (or the “Kays family farmhouse," as it was known to us) was actually built in the 1990s using vintage house kit plans and antiquated materials. You’d never guess the place was that new, as it looked and felt like it’d been there for one hundred years. And yet it was so well maintained that living there seemed like a dream.

After all of the shooting was done for the day, a few of us would stay in the farmhouse kitchen and watch a few dailies to make sure there wasn’t anything we needed to re-shoot (thank the Lord we had modern electricity so we didn’t completely blow out the outlets with all of our equipment). It was surreal, sitting there in that house at that huge kitchen table and feeling like it belonged to us: feeling like we should go upstairs to bed, or have a piece of pie, or start a fire in the living room stove. It just felt like...home. Every part of it did.

After everyone left on Friday, June 19, the barn seemed so empty and the house so lonely. The place really is a fully functional farm, used on a yearly basis for the thresher’s reunion. The chicken coop is outfitted, the summer kitchen is a real summer kitchen, and the sunrises….well, they speak for themselves. It just didn’t seem right that it would be that quiet all of a sudden, and that the characters would never come back as themselves. It was sad. It even made me wonder what happened there, when nobody was around.

It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that nobody wanted to leave.

Always Schedule a Live-In Food Coordinator

One of my fondest memories of the entire week happened at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning, June 15. It was the first full day of shooting. I was already exhausted, nervous, and so ready for it. I climbed into the fifth-wheel camper which had been designated as our breakfast stop. I was greeted by the nicest, warmest smell of heated caramel roles (thanks to our beloved cast member Darlys Hess) and fresh coffee. Mary Ferguson and friends had committed themselves to residing with us for the week solely to feed us. I can’t even begin to explain how absolutely vital this was to the production of “The Circle.” Every morning, no matter how behind we were the rest of the day, started the same: breakfast in a safe, warm place. The best view I had was sitting at the table watching the door open and close, watching the faces of my cast and crew appear (sleep-deprived, hopeful, and still looking respectfully curious about this whole process). It still puts a smile on my face.

Every noon and dinner hour involved a huge meal. Though I spent most of my lunch periods shooting a scene, running up the hill to the use the “necessary”, and planning the next transition, I either found myself at the table or was thrust a plate heaped with goodness and told to “Eat, Sarah.” And though many people contributed to these meals, Mary and Arlinda made it happen. What we would have done without their careful planning, their faithful food prep, and their diligence at running the director a toasted bagel when she had no time to eat her breakfast...I have absolutely no idea.  

And coffee? It flowed in Biblical proportions.

Because of our hectic schedule, the food was not only a physical necessity but a social one. In our story, the family eats and laughs around the table. So much happens at the table for so many of us, and we truly feel it when it doesn’t. We feel it when we don’t have time to share a meal with our family. We had such a limited amount of time to spend together as a cast and crew outside of work that those moments of fellowship at the table were priceless. It showed. When I did get a chance to sneak into the barn for a quick bite, it was always a rejuvenating experience to walk in on lighthearted conversations and to witness relationships form naturally over dessert. I truly believe that God intended food to be a part of our daily existence as people: not just for our bodies, but for our hearts as well.

Never Underestimate the Horse

My mouth fell open in surprise. I shouted, “Cut! Did you see that?” One of our actors, Josh Tysver, said, “I think that horse learned his lines faster than I did!” It’s true. Regular attendees of the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher’s Reunion, the Demmer family, delivered seven horses, a handful of chickens, and a donkey to the site on Wednesday, June 17, and filled the barn and coop with life. Literally. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much animal in one place, and the “Kays Family Farm” became even more real.

I was reminded, too, of how intuitive animals really are. While shooting the scene referenced above, I watched from the barn as character “Henry” walked through the building, out the door, and to the horses tied to the hitching post. “Lillian’s” cue was to cross and head for the hill with her basket of eggs. I’m telling you, this is no joke. The horse (Jackson, our favorite and designated “Henry’s animal) watched both “Henry” and “Lillian” in time to catch their lines exchanged. Cue, cue, cue. Like he knew it. We’d rehearsed a few times, shot a few times, and that horse knew exactly what to do and where to look. It truly gave me a whole new respect for the massive, Rohirrim scenes shot on set of “Lord of the Rings.” What a unique, interesting part of creating a story. What a fun and exciting addition to our cast.

Rollagians are a Different Breed

We used….no, we moved in to the farm at Rollag, and our whole existence for a week revolved around that place. But, there is another group of people that worked, lived, and mowed the lawn around us. Sometimes they hid, sometimes they stopped in, and sometimes they watched from a distance taking pictures. They looked at us with skepticism. Some wanted to know if we were getting paid, and then they hugged us and took our picture later. They’d roll in on four-wheelers and tell us stories about the house. They invited us in to see their campers, shared their showers with us, took us on tours, told us about everybody. They postponed maintenance, held off the barn roofers until Friday, and suggested we not light the stove. They entrusted us with keys, and watched curiously from a distance with their beers as we trudged through the lawn to shoot at location number two on the other side of the grounds. They asked about a premiere, and then stayed to watch the shooting of scenes. They praised us, provided for us, and promised us a peaceful experience. They are the Rollagians, and with deepest respect, we thank them. They are a people who love what they do and have poured their hearts and souls into providing such a magical, imaginative place for those who love history. God bless them for it. Come June, we’ll premiere “The Circle” on their grounds just for them.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

“Alixandra, what do I wear in this scene!”

Oh, the most common of phrases the entire week...aside from, “What scene is next?”

It’s quite overwhelming to think about the amount of work and research that goes into costume plotting, set dressing, and food preparing to re-create the years 1943 to 1945. It wasn’t until Alixandra Johnson, our production stylist, shared an interesting and educational video clip with me about production design that we began to relax about the “necessity” of being one hundred percent accurate. We were losing the fun, and losing ourselves in ebay. At the same time, for any artist, it’s of great value to create a product that exemplifies a time of history we greatly respect and wanted to honor. Everything from real, farm-fresh eggs to a working clock from the 1940s, from a genuine wool WWII uniform replica to the real military pins used to adorn it, from the color of the aprons, to the freshness of the bread, from the shoes to the hair to the fabric to the 1943-issued postage stamps, and to the haunting photos of people long gone...and to the one we had to create: every bit of the work was worth it, and every piece important to the story of “The Circle.”

And not everything was easy to find. I know for a fact Alixandra worked long and hard to find everything we needed. Many individuals stepped up to assist. Doors opened. People gave. And every bit of service and help we received made it all the easier to shoot this period film. Period films are tricky, and it’s always overwhelming to consider the fact that we may misrepresent what it is we’re trying to achieve. Alixandra, and many more individuals, proved that it doesn’t have to be a scary task at all. It just takes a lot of diligent, dedicated time to the love of creating something beautiful.

It worked.

Less Is More...Unless You Have To Do A Retake

I didn’t have to learn that directing is my favorite part. I already knew this. I produce, I manage, I write. But oh the joy is in the directing for me, and always will be.

It’s been interesting. Very rarely have I ever had an actor tell me what they need. Most actors I work with are new, and we learn this craft together. I’m learning how to direct every project, just as the actor is learning how to act. The majority of “The Circle” cast are new to the camera, or at least new to this level of production quality. But, I’m just as new to the directing of it as they are to doing it. I often don’t know what to say or do with them, and yet they trust me and patiently wait for me to guide them. They may not always trust me on the inside, but they respect me far too much to show me otherwise.

But this time. This time I needed a good lesson in trusting my actors and giving them a whole lot more credit for the know-how and the experience they’re gleaning from every job. This time I started to see some confidence, and I started to see some professionals. On more than one occasion I had an actor say, “This isn’t right. I need the camera rolling to do this.” This wasn’t selfishness, this wasn’t anyone being a diva. This was truth! How humbling to me as a director, to learn and listen and love on them so that they too trust in themselves and what they’re doing!

And wouldn’t you know that some of the takes in question are some of the best takes they delivered to me?


Have a Tow Truck On Standby

Not everything is perfect, and we have our rough spots. Surprisingly, there are very few bloopers to share with you at any point because everybody was that focused, but we do have our stories... when I’d written the script a certain way based on what somebody else had described to me as to what the location looked find out that the farm house had no completed upstairs and that we would, in fact, need a second location on the other side of the grounds. Luckily, we had already been alerted to this location because the other farmstead was an actual 1930s/40s replica. Whew! You have no idea how much my inner director panicked. when one of the Rollagians said that the barn roofers were expected any day. I didn’t even tell the cast and crew this one. Nobody needed that kind of stress but me. when the radar looked terrifying on the one day with animals and vintage cars. Praise the Lord He blew those clouds away. when our schedule fell behind. Always, always behind. when we misplaced that thing, and then that thing, and then couldn’t find that thing, and needed that thing...and hoped the camera and audio batteries didn’t die. Oh, the improvising. when nobody thought to turn on their camper heaters. This ain’t Texas weather, ya’ll. when we looked everywhere and could see wind turbines for miles around. It took some talented, strategic camera angles to avoid those things. when the sun came out and ruined the perfect photographer’s light. And then when it went behind the clouds and began to rain. And then when the wind picked up. when our vintage vehicle handler revved the gas instead of hitting the break and threw his 1930s pickup up over the end of the trailer. That was a late night for everybody. when you have to re-shoot scenes three times. when the horses don’t want to be actors anymore. when everyone is on edge, everyone is tired, everyone is hungry, everyone is worried, everyone is homesick…

It’s like those times, and at those times when you remember the most important thing...

Grace is in Everything

We know this. We don’t even really need to learn it. Or do we need to learn and remember and live it every day to make it stick with us? Is that why it feels like we learn this for the first time all the time? Why is that?

2 Corinthians 12:9 says, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

A project like this takes a lot of patience. A lot of grace. For everybody, every day. We fail, and we will continue to fail, even a little, in everything that we do. But God continues to call us back to His Word, and He continues to remind us daily that we, above all, are in need of His mercy and forgiveness and His grace. Us. We. I do.

“The Circle” is a story of a family waiting for their son to come home from war. More than anything, “The Circle” is a story of much-needed grace. Not with one, not with two, but with all.

Isn’t that the truth?

Let’s do this again.