Filming a Short on the Day of My Father’s Funeral

Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 12.02.15 AMI shot the first short film of my career, since my film school days ended 19 years ago. Saturday’s shoot happened to coincide with the day of my father’s funeral, half a country away. Needless to say, the whole experience was incredibly special.

Dad was on my mind quite a bit during the morning, but when the actors showed up at my place at 2:30, I quickly fell into the process.

I had previously met with Kylah and Fern individually to go through the script discussing their objectives, tactics, beats, and back story. I scheduled the first two hours of our day on Saturday as rehearsal time, so we could explore the script together, free of burning lights, idling cameras, and prying eyeballs.

The first order of business was agreeing together on where the beats were going to be in the script. From there it was our task to drive those beats – accelerate the pace of the scene towards each beat marker, shift gears, then accelerate faster to the next beat, continuing in this fashion over the entire six pages of the scene.

There is always a tendency for a young actor to take a long pause upon a moment of discovery in a scene – to reflect on what was just learned. But what one character discovers as new information, may not be new to the other character in the scene. A beat occurs ONLY when there is a moment of discovery between two or more characters. Driving those beats gives the scene its shape.

It’s important to make a lot of mistakes during this phase of rehearsal. Fail. Try again. Fail better. Once we learn from our mistakes, we can start to put the scene on its feet with some rudimentary blocking. It’s also important during this phase to be open to discovery. I prefer to work out the blocking together with the actors, rather than tell them when and where to be in the scene. This allows them tap their instincts to enrich the scene.

As a director, I had to discipline myself to NOT speak more than what was necessary. Giving young actors too many notes, in too compressed a period of time, tends to drive them out of their ‘instinct’ for the scene, and into their heads – where we can see them start to ‘act’ – which then comes across as technical and untruthful. When I see a mistake in a scene, I find it best to simply ask for another take, offering no note, to see if the actors correct the mistake on their own. If I see the same mistake twice, I will open my mouth.

After two hours, we drove to the location where we’d be shooting. The DP whom I asked to work with me on this couldn’t be there, so in addition to directing the scene and managing the set, I would have to shoot and light the film as well. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this development, but those were the cards I was dealt. Done this my whole career in the documentary world, but obviously, a scripted piece was a completely new experience.

In just over four hours we shot six pages, via nine camera set-ups, which added up to well over three dozen shots – tons of coverage. The performances were great. The camera work has drawn praise from trusted colleagues. The lighting is a bit flat, but I’m hoping I can tweak it with colour correction. The piece is cutting together nicely.

It’s been a very long time since I had been so intensely focused on one thing. It wasn’t until a few minutes after we wrapped, that my concentration dropped sufficiently for thoughts of my father’s funeral earlier that day to cross my mind. I was shocked that I hadn’t spared a single wayward thought towards Strasbourg, Saskatchewan, where at 3:30pm earlier that day, a church full of people gathered together in his name.

In a way, it was a perfect way to spend my day.

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