With Bernard Died picture-locked, there isn’t much more that I, as the director, need to do––aside from taking a look at everything to make sure it’s going okay. At the time of writing this, the premiere is still a week and a half away, so a lot of the final touches are still ongoing.
Music: Early on, since the inception of the project, Tony has had a composer in mind for our film. His name is Tim, and he is now a graduate of Peabody. Tony met him through their Sound on Film class a year ago, and I had worked with Tim through my job at Undergraduate Admissions. We’ve both really admired his work, and he’s really easygoing and talented.
Will and I sent Tim a rough cut, and he came up with some ideas (namely, this song). We loved where he was going with it. We rode down to Peabody in early April to meet with him, and talk about the themes and major emotional shifts in the work. Form there, Tim’s been hard at work composing. Yesterday, we just received his first draft, and it’s almost perfect. It’s entirely composed of piano, and with a little tweaking, it will hit all of the right emotional notes in the film.
I never realized how important music could be to this piece. I almost feel as if I’m looking at the film on a new level. The music helps the pacing a ton and gives a lot of depth to it. I’m excited to finally get it where we want it.
Sound Mix: I can’t speak to this too much, since I haven’t heard it yet, but we sent over an .omf file to our sound mixer, Eddie, who also recorded sound on-location. He’s working on cleaning up the dialogue, adding room tone, adjusting levels and more. A really detailed sound mix can help make the space of the film more believable, and I hope that when we hear Eddie’s final mix, the film will sound more polished and professional.
Coloring: Our DP, Corey, has been tasked with the job of coloring the film––and that is mostly because he is the only person who has the coloring program we need, DaVinci Resolve.
Coloring the film is really crucial. The raw footage rarely comes out of the camera as you’d like it to. With a really complicated program like DaVinci, you can fine-tune every highlight and hue in the frame. It’s essential, and you need a person with a very skilled and trained eye. So naturally, our DP would be perfect for the job. He hasn’t started on the color correction yet, but here is why we need it:
Design: I have definitely overlooked this in the past, but I started thinking about it on my last film, when we had a great graphic designer do the title. Typeface and title design can really tie up the film nicely. You get one shot to showcase your title in the film, and it has to look good. A striking title can stick in your mind visually.
Will and I wrestled with where to put the title, and we ultimately decided to place it over black at the end of the film. My friend Alayna, a graphic design major at MICA, offered to do the design for us. She is currently thinking over some ideas, but will eventually come up with a concept for the title and typeface that we can use for the credits.
Premiere: This is all in preparation for our premiere, which will be held on Saturday, May 9th at 6:30pm in Shriver Hall on campus. I’ve been told it’s a fancy event, semiformal attire, with food and a reception to follow. Studio North has organized it, and we’ve sent out invites to our cast, crew, extras, locations, friends and more.
In a way, I don’t want the premiere to come. It’s admitting that this film that I’ve worked on for over a year is finally over; that my time at Hopkins has finally come to a close. Even writing this blog post means that I’m near the end, as this will be my last one. Goldfishes and funerals and shampoo bottles have been on my mind for so long, have been so integral to my senior year here, that it will be hard to let go.
So as excited as I am for everyone to see this film––see where it has come from and where it will go––I am sad. I want to take the time here to thank everyone who has helped this film come to life. I’ve never made art this difficult in my life, but I am happy I did, because I have been challenged and pushed to the limit. And if nothing else, that’s what this experience has been for: mistakes, learning, and goldfish.
I’m writing this at the very end of the editing process, which has been, in one word: slow.
I am one of those directors who prefers to shoot the film and then not look at it at least for a month or so. Once we wrapped in early February, we didn’t start the edit until later in the month. During that time, our assistant editor Josh synched the sound and audio for us, and put together a rough assembly of a couple of the scenes. We got it back from him in late February, and then began to slowly assemble the film.
This was largely a process that involved our editor, Will, staring at everything and changing things for hours on end, while I looked over his shoulder and offered some advice or voiced my preference for a take or performance, occasionally. We also took a trip down to our sound designer’s recording studio with Zach and recorded his voice-overs. We were often re-writing the script with him in the studio, determining what was easy enough or realistic for him to say.
When we cut the film from start to finish, according to the script, it was thirteen minutes long. And it was a slow thirteen minutes, but we still felt pretty good about it. However, when we showed it to our professor John Mann, he criticized it pretty heavily. It was not a good film. It was long, with too many characters, plots, and confusing scenes. The script, as we had feared, was not working on-screen. However, as he assured us, it was “fixable,” and we could have something good if we worked hard on it.
Cut to Will and me spending hours and hours in the DMC, editing and desperately trying to save our film. We were pessimistic that it would turn out to be anything worth showing. Our first decision was to create a new cut with the flashbacks in the film reduced to the absolute minimum. At eleven minutes, it still dragged, and we feared that it was no better than before. After showing the film to some friends, we decided it was best to get it down even further.
One afternoon, we reduced the monologues in the chapel scene to silence. Voice-overs, all of the flashbacks (save the fish store), beloved tracking shots, entire character arcs: cut. At around seven and a half minutes, it was the strongest cut that we had. We also made a radical decision: the flashback to the fish store was no longer a flashback, but started the entire film. It was a good choice; the scene was beautiful to open with, and it followed chronologically in Ray’s timeline.
The problem? A majority of our actors and characters ended up on the cutting room floor. Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, and Uncle Phil were no longer characters––just featured extras with one line each, at the most. I still haven’t resolved how to tell them that they won’t be the characters they once were, and we feel incredibly guilty about it. However, I long ago resolved that for the sake of the art, we would have to do what was best for the film.
And here we are, today, April 17: our deadline for picture-locking the film. We’ve gotten it down to around five minutes and thirty seconds, with the help of our professors John Mann, Matt Porterfield, Roberto Busó-García, and many more students and friends. We have cut and recut the film so many times, and the only scene mainly left untouched is the last one, Scene 18. I’ll watch it one more time to make sure it works, but then it’s done; we can’t change anything anymore. And it’s up to everyone else to judge what it is like.
It is not the same film that it was one month ago. It is far from the film that it was when we shot it, unrecognizable from the script that we submitted to Studio North now a year ago. But it has gone from something that scared me to something that I can be proud of, after lots of hours and hard work (and Will’s editing talent, of course).
Next up: we send it to the sound designer, composer and colorist, with less than a month until Studio North’s premiere.
It’s okay to fix it in post,
And so, production continued…
Day 4: Saturday, January 24
Location: JHU Levering Conference Room
Scenes: 7, 8
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott, Grandma
Crew Call: 10am; Cast Call: 11am
This day of production was easier from the start with two quick scenes. First, an argument between Aunt Lis and Grandma about her veil, and second, the actual wedding––a quick, thrown-together affair in a conference room during Lis’s lunch break. Production Designers Lauren and Danielle knew that they had to create an authentic wedding that looked at once hasty and rushed, but not lazy from a production standpoint. They bought Dollar Store supplies to dress the table and walls and used the whiteboard in the room to write “Just Married!”
This was also the first time that we had a real, live fish in the film. Tony picked up Bernard and five “stunt doubles” at Petco. As production wore on, we realized each fish had a different personality, and unfortunately the one that we used this day wasn’t lively enough. Getting any close-ups of the fish was near impossible; he would only lie down at the bottom of the bowl. We switched to a different Bernard (by accident) the next day and stuck with him for rest of the shoot. Zach even took him home on the last day of production.
The best part of this scene, for me, was the costumes. Lis got to wear a white pantsuit, which we picked up at Marshall’s and kept the tags on to return later. Todd showed up with a fish-patterned tie, which fit the theme perfectly. Zach was dressed in an orange shirt and blue pants, which accidentally complemented Bernard’s own colors. Martha’s outfit, a lavender dress, became a motif in the film; we tried to put some lavender in each scene to hint that there was a little bit of Grandma everywhere.
We had lots of time to relax, and took this day at a slow pace. We shot lots of b-roll and tried the wedding scene two ways, one with a comedic argument between Lis and Phil, and then a more silent take.
Day 5: Sunday, January 25
Location: JHU Center for Social Concern / Hamlyn Apartments
Scenes: 4, 1, 2
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Secretary + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
We knew going into this day that it was going to be another tough one. We scheduled a company move halfway through the day from the Center for Social Concern to an apartment north of campus. The office we were using was empty, and the apartment room was a mess. The production designers first had to set up the bare office to look like a real one, then run over to the apartment to begin clearing it out. I think I’m most proud of their work on the apartment––the pictures, trinkets and drawings in Ray’s “room” transformed it from a messy college student’s to a believable child’s.
The morning passed without much incident. Scene 4 was a flashback to Uncle Diego’s office, where Ray plays a game and overhears a conversation between his uncles. We had hired a young actress, Hannah, who had auditioned for Lis. She seemed nervous and jumpy when talking to me, but lost that when the camera was on her.
Our problems started in the afternoon. I sent our grips, Josh and Victor, home from set, thinking that the apartment was too small to fit them and we had a good handle on lighting. But the room was a little trickier than I had thought––there was only one window in the corner, and the area near the bed where we wanted to shoot was too dark. Kristen (2nd AD) and Brandon (AC) had to use LEDs and flags to brighten up the room, but getting it perfect took almost an hour after we got to the location, which was maddening.
This was also when Zach reached his peak of disagreeability. It was a long day, and he would constantly run offset or play games on his phone. When I would ask him to perform an action or sit up or get into place, he would completely ignore me. Will and Corey eventually had to start directing him too. At the end of the day, Zach wasn’t only just tired, but he was frustrated, messing up his lines so we would have to run take after take. When I thanked Zach after we wrapped, he brushed past me and slammed the door on the way of out the apartment. I don’t blame him for being tired, but I think that he was realizing that maybe set life wasn’t for him––or maybe I wasn’t the right director for him.
Day 6: Saturday, January 31
Location: Car / Tropical Fish
Characters: Ray, Grandma
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
This was the last day of shooting, but when we pulled up to our first location, Tropical Fish, the door was locked and there was a sign: “Family emergency, sorry. Be back later.” We repeatedly called, knocked––nothing. Once our cast arrived, we knew that we had to do something; we couldn’t sit on the streets of East Baltimore without a plan. We drove back to my apartment on a whim, trying to figure out what to do on the way.
We were filming Grandma’s flashback today, and the sequence was originally split into two scenes: one in the fish store and another in a car. As soon as we got to my apartment, Will and Tony started rewriting the script to cover the entire sequence in the car. We had also planned to get a plastic bag to hold Bernard from the pet store, but since that didn’t work out, we had to send Tony back out to Petco. And so, with some creative scheduling, we shot Martha’s lines first without Zach, waited for the plastic bag, then shot Zach’s lines. In the car, there was only room for Corey (DP) and Adriana (Sound Op), along with Martha as the driver, so I had to let Corey direct this one.
After the last shot around 1pm, we managed to reach Tropical Fish on the phone. They were open again, so we drove over immediately. We made the decision to shoot the scene silent, in only two shots, because of time and also because the dialogue previously written for the fish store was covered in the car scene already. Shooting this scene silent was the best snap decision we made all day. The bubbles made great sound, and the scene worked better with a silent Grandma.
We took a group photo in Tropical Fish, after we completely wrapped for the entire production:
Production for Bernard Died was exhausting, and seemed at times like it was impossible. But that all went away when we would see the footage at the end of each day. No matter the hardships we encountered, we always managed to make it look and sound and feel all right. The little-script-that-could was now a film.
(Also, a huge shout-out to our amazing set photographer Gillian, who took all of the photos in these last two blog posts. You can see more of them on our page, facebook.com/bernarddied.)
All the luck in production,
It’s time to talk about the real stuff: the production. I think that the easiest way is to break it down by days. And so…
Day 1: Saturday, January 17
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scenes: 6, 3, 5
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
For the first day of production, I wanted to pick scenes that were low key to shoot for a couple reasons. The first was that it was Zach’s first day on a film set… ever. I was worried that if I worked him too hard, he may quit and not come back to finish the film. Also, second, my directing philosophy is to start off with the easy stuff and build up to the hard, more emotional scenes. Scene 6 was mostly a lot of blocking. During the scene, the family has an argument by their car as Ray buries his fish outside. The scene would be shot so that the focus was on Ray, with the family blurred in the background Scenes 3 and 5 were also fairly easy since they both were in the lobby of the funeral home, and the dialogue was short and quick.
Tony, Will and I drove to set in the morning, picking up all of our crew at 7:30am for the ride out to Kingsville, a half an hour away from Hopkins. As soon as I walked in the door, I faced my first crisis. Eddie, our sound mixer, had forgot a crucial XLR cable, and he lived an hour and a half away from Lassahn. He immediately took off to wait outside a nearby music store until it opened at 10am so he could buy a new one, which cost us money and time.
When he got back, we shot Scene 6 smoothly. It was cold outside around 40 degrees, but this was our only exterior shot of the entire shoot. We only had to freeze for just a few hours and reminded everyone that this was the only outdoor scene, to boost morale. During this scene, Zach was surprisingly easy to work with and took my direction well. He was beginning to understand that sometimes we needed him to perform his actions and dialogue more than once when something was wrong with the camera, which we were learning he didn’t have the patience for.
The rest of the family (Nick, Diego, Lis, Phil and Mom) was acting out an argument in the background of Zach’s action. This was by far the most complicated scene we blocked. Dave had to get out of a car, come around and hit his mark in time to say his lines. Jose and Salwa also needed to exit the funeral home and join the family in time for their lines too––all while staying visible to the camera. This also needed to be framed behind Zach, who was in-focus and took up a majority of the frame. Motion for the camera is different than in real life, since everything needs to look good for the frame. Thankfully, our actors were professionals and understood the importance of hitting their marks and cheating towards the camera, but it was something that I was still learning as I went through the scene.
After we shot Scene 6, the lens adapter on our camera (the Digital Bolex D16) broke. We had to use pliers to rip it off so we could continue using the camera. This meant that we were restricted to only two lenses for the rest of the weekend, until Corey (DP) could order a new adapter over the week. It wasn’t awful, but it did limit the range of shots that we could shoot––factoring in the focus and depth of field.
We took a lunch break (lasagna and salad from Giovanna’s) and started on Scenes 3 and 5 in the afternoon. At this time, Tony had brought us the Film & Media Studies dolly: a large, cumbersome, orange nightmare that weighed a ton, but gave us some of the smoothest (and most cinematic) shots in the film. Corey (DP) and I both really wanted a slow push in on Zach to start Scene 3, which meant running the scene over and over again and coordinating blocking and performance all at once. This is when I began to notice that Zach was more antsy in the afternoon, after all of the food from lunch. He wouldn’t sit still and became difficult to work with.
Scene 5 was the first time I had seen Fatima (Mariana) act, which was a huge risk. I hadn’t had the chance to work with her on her lines at all until we got to set, but she ended up performing them naturally.
One of the biggest mistakes we made on this day was our open call for extras. We called for them at 9am and 1pm, thinking we wouldn’t get any––as what typically happens when you try to get people to act all day unpaid in the background. But we didn’t expect for ten of them to show up, ready to be placed, when we only needed about four for the entire day. Thankfully, Will (1st AD) was great at keeping them happy throughout the day, with the promise of free food.
We wrapped Day 1 feeling really optimistic about the footage, the cast and the crew.
Day 2: Sunday, January 18
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scenes: 15/16/17, 9/13
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott + background
Crew Call & Cast Call: …it got messed up.
Yes. We were driving to Lassahn around 8am that morning in the rain. About two minutes away from the funeral home, a police car blocked Belair Road. Cars were detouring around, and we pulled over to the side of the road. Will, who had made it to Lasshan before us, called and said that there was black ice on the road, and he had seen a couple accidents. The police seemed to have decided to close off the road in the few minutes between our cars, and Tony and I, along with Eddie and his car of crew, couldn’t get to the funeral home.
With Corey directing me, we tried to take every possible detour, but police blocked them all off. On one road, we watched a car slide backwards downhill, completely out of control. We stopped off at a Starbucks around 9am, and I started calling all of our cast and crew, pushing the call time by two hours so that cast wouldn’t arrive until 11am. When Tony called me to tell me he had found a way to the funeral home, we got back in our car and followed a new detour, finally arriving at 10am to lots of applause.
The pushed call time presented us with a challenge: how to make up 2 hours of work and shooting. We had initially scheduled a pretty light day, overall; Scene 15/16/17 only had four shots, and Scenes 9 and 13 were the same setup as the bookends of a flashback. But Will, as the 1st AD, was stressed since his job was to keep us on time, and that meant the pressure was on Corey and me to make up the time. It would’ve been impossible to call off the day and reschedule, seeing as our actors were busy immediately after our scheduled shoot days. There was no room for flexibility, and we had no choice but to make up the lost time.
Scenes 15/16/17 were condensed into one and consisted of two long tracking shots: one forwards––chasing Ray as he runs down the hallway––and one backwards––as he leaves the wake with Mom. The shot had to coordinate background action, dolly movement, and Ray’s speed. We must have done dozens of takes of each because something was wrong each time; either Zach looked at the camera, the dolly’s movement went out of control, or the focus was off. Of course, this also meant we were even more behind schedule, and also when Zach learned that when I told him we had to run the take “one more time,” it was a lie. We didn’t end up eating lunch until 3pm, and only had until 5pm when we lost daylight to make up the time.
As if the day could get worse after lunch, I also had my own problems to deal with: I’d been having chronic chest pains for a while, and they got so bad that I had to take a step back on directing. Scenes 9 and 13 passed in a blur for me, giving direction only when absolutely necessary and letting Corey and Will take the lead. We combined the two scenes––a simple conversation between Ray and Uncle Elliott––and shot them in one take, allowing for a short pause between the scenes as the camera rolled. This was our first scene with Jason, someone else I’d never worked with before that day, but he was a natural talent. The scene looked beautiful overall.
With Day 2 wrapped, we felt good, but a little shaken by the panic that morning. So we were prepared for anything that Day 3 threw at us.
Day 3: Monday, January 19
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scene: 14, 18
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott, Grandma + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
On this day, we were already behind schedule before we even got there. That was because Scenes 14 and 18 were going to be ambitious to do in one day.
Scene 14 was scheduled to shoot first. For one, this was the scene for the monologues of Nick and Lis––aka the most emotional moments of the script––and it was going to take some time to get the performances right. Secondly, Scene 14 had a lot of background action, with a ton of actors placed in the chapel that had to act and move correctly every take. And thirdly, something we were majorly concerned about: around noon, there was going to be a viewing in the opposite side of the funeral home, and we were warned that music would be playing, which would interfere with our sound recording. We would need to record all major dialogue before that happened.
Basically, we were set up to lose Scene 14 from the start. But I really owe it to Will, Corey, and our grips, Josh and Victor, for making the day run so efficiently. They were always one step ahead. The next shot would be composed and lit immediately after the previous broke down, and Will was always anticipating where background would be, directing their actions immediately and smoothly. This meant that all I had to worry about were the performances.
At the beginning of the day, for Scene 14, Corey suggested that we shoot it handheld to reflect the shaky nature of the emotional content and also compensate for our lost wider lenses––even though I only initially wanted tripod throughout the entire film. I was hesitant, but then opened up to the idea. The mobility of Corey’s shoulder-mount gave us wider options of shots for the intensely complicated motion and composition of Scene 14, which was also the longest.
By far the most difficult aspect of this day was directing the actors. As I mentioned, these were the toughest performances for the actors, and the most intense scene for the characters, as they all take turns saying goodbye to their mother. I didn’t want this goodbye to Grandma to be sentimental. This meant taming back the emotions to a realistic level, enough so that it wasn’t sappy. Because we were behind schedule, and almost every scene had Ray in it, this was a very long, very tiring day for Zach. He was sugared out (from the Coke that Tony gave him at lunch), exhausted, and not willing to work after half of the day. It was a struggle to even get him to stand in place, let alone act. Ironically, this is also when Zach gave one of his best performances of the film later on in Scene 18.
Scene 14 was also when I realized that the background actors could be more of a hindrance than a help sometimes. One of the ladies, positioned behind Zach in one of our shots, kept looking at the camera and ruining our takes. Another young man, an “aspiring filmmaker,” kept bothering the crew and giving Will advice on how to run set. Another man approached me on my lunch break to snap about how much longer he was going to be on-set. One woman wanted travel reimbursement for the three hours she drove to our set. Again, this all could have been avoided by not using an open call for actors, but in total we had around twenty background for the day and filled the chapel entirely, for which I’m very grateful.
Scene 18 was spent playing catch-up and bargaining with Zach to get him to run more takes. Martha, who played Grandma, was perfectly content to lie in the coffin as long as it was necessary. Jason kept checking in on her and talking to her between takes to make sure she was okay, so my time and energy could be focused on persuading Zach to act. At some point in the day, Will took over coaxing him into acting since he had stopped listening to me. Three days straight of shooting for nine hours was getting to him, but thankfully we’d have a long break after this.
We finished the day feeling euphoric and thanking the owners of Lasshan, who had gratefully turned off the music for the viewing so we could shoot undisturbed. I am not exaggerating a bit when I say this film would not have happened if not for their generosity.
Even though it was exhausting, the feeling of wrapping the three toughest days of production was amazing. This was the first time that the scenes I’d been thinking about for the past nine months were real, tangible things––things that had once only been abstract concepts, pictures in my head. It was thrilling to actually see them––see the tracking shots, Zach’s performances, the production design, the forty plus people making it happen, and even the fish in the shampoo bottle. This was what it felt like to see something in your head manifest itself in reality, almost magically.
Stay tuned for Days 4-6.
Sound, camera, slate, action,
When we sent out crew calls for every job on our production back in October, almost every single candidate put down that their first choice position was producer. I couldn’t tell whether it was because they truly, deep down wanted to be a producer, or they just had no idea what the hell a producer was. Because you have to be truly crazy, in my opinion, to want to have the best and also worst job of working on a film production.
Producer is a job that is at once all encompassing and yet very vague. When I interned this past summer under a couple of producers for a television production company, they could spend hours on the phone in a therapy-like session with talent, or running submit a money order before the post office closed at the end of the day, or working on stories for days that could be dashed by executives in a second. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to define what a producer does because, in short, I believe that the producer does everything. And I mean everything.
On a small short film such as this one, the producer is the one who hires crew, scouts locations, manages the budget, prepares craft services, averts major crises on and off-set––and every little thing in-between. That is why when all of these underclassmen applied for the job of producer on our film, I couldn’t imagine why they would want the job without ever having done it before. In my experience, a lot of people who believe they want to produce quickly end up hating it––it isn’t “creative” enough, too logistical, too hectic and busy and stressful. (We ended up choosing Will as our third producer, joining Tony and me. He is someone who was completely invaluable to us as well as damn good at his job.)
I love producing. I love having a hand in every little aspect of the film, from pre-production to production to post-production. But this film was the biggest test of my abilities. For one, the cast and crew were large. For just one weekend of shooting, we would have to manage forty people per day. Another reason was that the scope of the project was huge, too. We needed six locations (one of which was a funeral home), six shoot days (and so twelve meals), a large amount of props (and our production designers didn’t have cars to go get them)… and so on, and so on. The script was ambitious, and that was what I liked but also what scared me.
Here is just a sample of what I had to do as a producer on Bernard Died. (In the real world, you’d have producers such as a line producer, unit production manager, location manager, etc. to delegate these tasks to. This is a student film, so we didn’t.)
Locations: On their own, these were difficult. Three of our six shoot days had to take place at a funeral home. Buying a casket was also way out of our budget, so we also needed to get a funeral director to loan us one. I sent out a ton of emails to funeral homes in the Baltimore-area. In all, we visited three funeral homes, and the one we liked best was called Lassahn Funeral Home. The place was perfect, an old 1700s-style home converted into a funeral home, with pretty red wallpaper and a lot of charm. Due to the unpredictable nature of the business of funeral homes, we were terrified that Lasshan might kick us out of filming as late as the day before production. The last day of filming, there was supposed to be a viewing, but thankfully Lassahn just moved us into another chapel and let us keep filming while it was going on. We owe all of our success to Lasshan, honestly.
The apartment location for Ray’s bedroom and bedroom was easy enough (I coerced my friend into letting us use his), and we borrowed an empty office in JHU’s Center for Social Concern for another location. But the fish store posed a bit of a problem. We needed to find somewhere non-corporate (they rarely let you film) but also with good lighting. We stumbled upon Tropical Fish, a store with a sketchy exterior in East Baltimore but with a beautiful interior. It was Corey’s favorite place to shoot by far. No lights were needed, and the place was cinematic on its own.
Crew: The producer is also in charge of hiring all of the crew. We needed to fill a bunch of positions: 2nd AD (assistant director), script supervisor, AC (assistant camera), production designers, grips and tons of PAs (production assistants). Thankfully, Hopkins film students are the most helpful, and we were easily able to fill all of the roles. Most of our crew was made up of sophomores and freshmen.
The major problem was a sound mixer. We understood that sound was really important, but no one at Hopkins was qualified or understood how it worked. We put out calls to Peabody’s sound departments, but no luck. We ended up deciding to hire a mixer and a boom op, which killed our budget but was probably one of the best decisions we made. Eddie and Adriana were also a ton of fun to have on-set.
Scheduling: Although this was more of Will’s job, scheduling was a pain for me when it crossed with my casting for Uncle Elliott. Our actor, Jason, couldn’t be there for our first shoot day on January 17 when he was needed all three days, on the 18th and 19th too. We needed to come up with some solution so that Jason’s schedule could work with ours. Although it wasn’t the best solution, we had to cut Elliott’s character out of one scene entirely, and even in the edit, I’m still not sure if it was the best decision.
There were also littler restrictions: Dave had to leave by 5pm every single shooting day, and Salwa had to leave early on the day of her biggest scenes. Some crew couldn’t be there on certain days, and so we would have to adjust how we ran our sets. We also had to decide what crew we would want what days––a big mistake sometimes, since we let our grips go early one day and ended up an hour behind schedule. Will would be sending out call sheets a couple hours before we shot because sometimes, there were last-minute changes in the scenes we shot or our call times.
We ended up scheduling six shoot days: January 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, and 31. The days varied in their complication and how much we had to get done, but we could only work on weekends since we couldn’t pull Zach out of school on the weekdays.
In retrospect, scheduling was probably the easiest part of all of this.
Craft Services: This is the bane of my existence as a producer. It’s hard to conceptualize how much food will feed a cast and crew of forty plus, but I’ll give you a clue: it’s a lot. Feeding your cast and crew good food and on a regular basis means you will have a happy cast and crew. Coffee is also important. Lots and lots of coffee.
The night of each shoot day was spent at Giant, buying chips and cookies and drinks and bagels and orange juice and more for the next day. We were lucky enough to get a discount on an Italian restaurant called Giovanna’s near our shooting location for lunch, and two places, Red Canoe and JHU-located Daily Grind, donated breakfast some days.
But after the first day of shooting, and the sheer amount of money we spent on food, we needed a different approach. Will, Kristen (our 2nd AD), and Taylor (PA) spent one night making cold cut sandwiches and pasta salad. Will, Kristen and I spent another night baking three trays of baked ziti. And finally, we resorted to Tony’s favorite pizzeria, Papa John’s, to pick up the slack on two of our shoot days because it was cheap and quick.
Budgeting: As you can probably imagine based on my complaints about our sound and food, our budget grew out of control. I'm not good with numbers or money, and when you’ve never run a production this large before, it’s difficult to tell how your money will be spent. Amazingly, almost all of our Studio North grant went towards feeding our cast and crew. Thankfully, with the help of Eric Beatty in the Homewood Arts Programs, we were able to get some more money to help us out. Unfortunately, the rest of the cost will have to be covered out-of-pocket by Tony and me. (Details to come once the film is finished.)
But the worst part of it all was the crisis management on-set. Stay tuned.
All the best,
There are many directors who love the casting process. I am not one of them.
I know from the first time that an actor speaks whether he or she will fit the role, and it’s rare that I can be convinced to change my mind. The headshots and resumes are pointless to me, because I can remember the faces of those I liked, and I forget the ones I didn’t––but sometimes it’s a little trickier than that. Someone who looks the part can have an awful reading, or someone who reads perfectly can have a hard-to-work-with personality or schedule––all of which are deal-breakers. Although you do eventually end up with your cast, it is a bit like a puzzle. This is because you need your cast to not only act, but also to work together. And it can be hard to jam all those pieces together.
Going into casting Bernard Died, our main problem was that we had to cast a family. This meant that once we found our dream actor for the character of Ray, it would decide everything else about the rest of the cast––the race, look, likability. Tony and I put out calls for all ages and races to see what we got. We had two casting dates: October 4 and October 25, with callbacks on November 1. It was a cold read, which meant that we gave the script pages to the actors when they got to the audition. In all, we had 66 auditions, and 15 people were called back. We recorded our auditions so we could re-watch them later (also: where all the stills in this post come from!), and set up an email account (BernardDiedCasting@gmail.com) to communicate with the actors who RSVP'd.
Out of the 66, many were bad, American Idol-style. One kid was too scared to audition and ended up crying in the corner of the room. Another had a laminated crab claw-shaped resume. Women as old as thirty came in to audition for a 15-year-old’s part. Another kid repetitively emailed us asking whether we were also casting for Teen Beach Movie 2. Really, nothing was off-limits.
But still there were many auditions that weren’t bad––that were actually really good. And those are the people we cast. Here’s a breakdown of how we ended up casting each of our characters, the good and the bad.
Ray Goby: As the main character of the film, Ray was the most important, casting-wise. We decided that whomever we casted for Ray would determine the rest of the family––race, hair color, everything. The fourth little boy that we saw on the morning of our first open call was Zach. He was dressed in an adorable button-down checkered shirt, with his hair combed to the side. When we explained that Ray’s character was somber and serious, his mom said, “You’re not like that, are you, Zackie?” and he shook his head and started to laugh. His happy personality, along with a good reading, convinced us that he could be Ray.
Just to be safe, we called back two other boys alongside Zach to read for us. One of the little boys looked the part, but his voice was deep and shy––and didn’t smile at us once. The other kid, we quickly learned, would be miserable to work with. He got up in the middle of the callback and starting running around the room, drawing on the chalkboards and “mooing” like a cow. He wouldn’t listen to even his father, who was yelling at him to come sit down. Unfortunately, Zach never showed up that day, and Tony and I started panicking that we hadn’t found our Ray yet.
The next day, I got a call from Zach’s mom saying that they were at the audition but nobody was there. It turned out that they had misread the date in my email. I ran down to the Mattin Center and auditioned Zach, and I am so glad that I did. He was everything we were looking for. He also smiled a lot.
Mom: I remembered Kara from her emails leading up to the audition. She was courteous, used proper grammar (which is rarer in casting than you think it would be), and asked questions about her potential character so she could come prepared. She struck me as a mother when she walked in the room and, as I soon learned, she had a young son in real life. Kara gave a terrific reading––but what really impressed me was her attitude. She was the calmest and kindest person in callbacks, just like we pictured our Mom character.
Uncle Nick: Todd was one of the first men that we saw in the morning of our first audition, and Tony and I looked to each other after his reading and said, “That’s Uncle Nick.” He was clearly a seasoned actor, but he warned us that his schedule may not allow him to film with us––he was in a play for the rest of 2014 and wouldn’t be free until January. He was one of the reasons that we rearranged our shooting schedule, pushing everything back to January in the hopes that he would be able to act. He did.
Uncle Reish and Priya: These characters were a challenge. Reish and Priya needed to be related and, as written, they were Indian. After our auditions, we had only seen one Indian girl for Priya and none for Reish. On the second date of auditions, Jose walked in––another person who had been very invested in our project since he saw our call for actors––and we knew he was Reish after his reading. However, he was Hispanic, and we had only seen one Hispanic girl for Priya’s role––and when I offered her the part, she never got back to me. We couldn’t lose Jose just because of Priya’s character. Last minute, Tony found the roommate of one of his Hopkins friends named Fatima, who we never auditioned for the sake of time but turned out to be an excellent actress. (Also, the names of the characters were ultimately changed to Uncle Diego and Mariana.)
Aunt Lis and Uncle Phil: Although Lis’ character was a principal in the script and Phil was more secondary, what really convinced us that Salwa and Dave came together as a pair was their callback. We had all five family members in the room together, and the two invented their whole back-story for us as we got the camera rolling––about their wedding night, honeymoon, and martial issues. It was hilarious, with so much personality. Salwa’s monologue in her private callback also convinced us that she was easily the best candidate for Lis that we had seen all day.
Grandma: Martha was a SAG-actress that I had picked out from our email exchanges from the start––courteous and invested in the script. She gave a very strong initial audition, and during our callbacks, she also worked well with our young Rays––which was a big factor for us, since Grandma’s character needed to have a good connection with the lead. In reality, we were torn between her and another actress, but when I gave the other actress direction, she butchered the performance. By default, the part went to Martha, and I’m glad that it did.
Uncle Elliott: Casting this character was a bit of a nightmare. After going through auditions and callbacks, we still hadn’t seen anyone we would like to consider for Elliott’s role. It was getting close to production in January when we casted another SAG-actor. The Tuesday before the first shoot day on Saturday, he was called in for acting on the TV show TURN on our most important shoot day, so I had to fire him. I spoke with another actor on Wednesday, who promised me he could fill the role, but I woke up to an email on Thursday saying he would also have to cancel. In a last-ditch effort, I called up a Hopkins friend named Jason who was flying back from Los Angeles on our first shoot day, and he agreed to play the part. We rearranged our shooting schedule a bit to fit him in, and he ended up being one of the best casting choices we made––even though also one of the most stressful.
It may seem like I loved every actor and had no regrets in my casting decisions––because it’s true. They learned from each other, taught me things about directing, formed friendships, and were a lot of fun to work with on-set––always surprising me with their kindness, patience and ability. Most of all, they really did become a big family at the end, just like their characters.
So, I guess I’m glad I sat through 66 auditions to get to the couple that mattered.
All the luck in casting,
I’ve heard it again and again: when you make a film, you have to start with a good script, or else it doesn’t matter how great your director or producer or director of photography or editor is. The film just won’t work.
I know that I want to be involved in filmmaking in some way, but I found out early on at Hopkins that screenwriting wasn’t my strong suit. So when the grants for the new student-run production company Studio North were announced last April, I teamed up with senior Tony Lee––who could write, who was a good friend, and whose work I admired. I told him I would direct a script if he wrote it, and that’s how Bernard Died began.
Tony sent me four short stories he had written, and I picked the one I liked best. It was a 10-page prose piece on a nine-year-old boy named Ray Goby who didn’t want to flush his dead goldfish down the toilet on the day of his grandmother’s funeral. It had multiple flashbacks, dozens of main characters (all family members), and had a unique child’s perspective. Plot aside, the story seemed like a logistical nightmare to produce, but I couldn’t stop visualizing the narrative of a young boy reasoning with death alongside his quirky modern family.
When we started to work on the lovingly titled Untitled Goldfish Funeral Script, I learned that writing an adaptation of a short story is tough. For one, something inherent to prose is the voice, which is difficult to translate visually. We chose to keep Ray’s point-of-view by writing voice-overs, which also solved the problem of the complicated characters and situations. Another difference is the scope. Prose has no limit; scripts, on the other hand, do. Scripts are meant to be produced, to turn into material work. They can’t have that same unrestrained quality of prose––or they can, but with a slim chance of being produced without a lot of money.
We felt so accomplished when we finally finished writing that I thought that once we sent our script to Studio North, pitched it, and got the grant, our screenwriting was over. Far from it. Over the course of the next nine months, we revised countless drafts, even on-set and in post-production. One night in November, Tony, Will (our producer/1st AD), Corey (our DP) and I stayed up late workshopping our script in a true “writer’s room” fashion. We all stood up and screamed at each other at one point, wondering why no one agreed with our ideas. The script went from seventeen pages to ten; from eleven main characters to nine; from dozens of scenes down to just eighteen. It was tough to receive criticism, but that criticism helped turn it into what it is today.
Most of our revisions when we neared production were focused on the logistical aspects of producing the script. When working on a low budget student film, there isn’t money to buy a casket or funeral flowers; no way to pay actors; impossible to fake a school carnival. In a way, the production itself influenced the script, and the limits became its aesthetic. Since we already knew we couldn’t shoot a summer outdoor wedding scene in the middle of January, it was best to change the location and motivation of the scene sooner rather than later. We found ourselves inspired by the props found in thrift stores, the wardrobe that our actors brought to set, the small locations owned by Maryland families, and the personalities and touches that our actors gave their characters.
In the end, what makes all of the revisions and late nights and stress worth it is when this line:
...becomes this opening frame from the film:
Over the next couple of months, I hope to share all of the ups and downs of the little-short-film-that-could, Bernard Died (or, as we still call it, the Untitled Goldfish Funeral Script).
Until next time,