Movie shoot – Day 1

OK, that crew that I wasn’t sure would show up… is knocking on my motel door at 6:30am – half an hour early on the first day or our movie shoot. They go and wait in their cars, motors running to warm up the engines in the glacial high desert morning. The DP joins them at 7am on the dot. “Um…I think you should get up,” she says to my blanket covered head as she steps out. Finally, half asleep, I saunter out with my chicken gizzards at 7:30am – half an hour late to my own party.

First order of the day – a stop at the catering Mountain lady’s home to pick up coffee and breakfast. We’ve agreed we’ll pick up breakfast and dinner each day, and she will deliver lunch to us, as our set is only ten miles away. She’s already furious that we’re almost a half hour late, her perfect breakfast growing cold. We set her at ease; a couple of us spill hot tea and coffee on ourselves. See? It’s all still HOT.

On to our shoot location, a beautiful high desert vista. I pull to a stop near geometric rock formations guarded by Joshua trees way at the end of a very rutted dirt trail. I picked real good. Every direction you look is a whole new set of vistas. All you have to do is turn and face a different way and you have a new scene. Location, courtesy of the Earth Desert Man.

I sit for a moment, not believing I am here. I watch the broken limb of a half burnt Joshua tree as it sways in the gentle breeze. Creak creak creak. The sound and the swaying limb are hypnotic. Its brokenness brought on by a wilderness fire that raged through here several years ago. Many trees are still recovering and/or still dying. And yet, it’s so iconic . The dead bleached white bark with its unruly dark tufts of Joshua tree leaves sways starkly against the cerulean blue and very alive sky. I will need a shot of this before my shoot is over. It somehow seems so right for my story of desert survival.

We eat before unloading equipment. Holy Guacamole. This lady can cook! Our freezing hands and bodies are warmed by the still-warm scrumptious breakfast burritos bursting with organic eggs, organic bacon, and organic potatoes. Meatless eater that I am, I chomp down, bacon and all. It’s just too good. And it seems there are several courses to this breakfast. The crew, a respectably professional set of assorted indie types, seemed cold and unsure of the undertaking this morning (not helped by my late appearance and lack of call sheets). But this is now a party. The food definitely gets them in the mood. The right food can work magic. Thanks, Mountain Lady.

…The Blackmagic and Red cameras are now set up and ready to go. I lazily wonder if their footage will match each other. But what do I know about technical stuff. It’s time for…lights, camera, action! And getting into my acting zone. The first two days it will just be me as the sole actor, so the pressure of directing someone else is off for now.

I have the jitters. I remind myself – I CAN DO THIS. It’s OK to be nervous when you have never made and directed and acted in your own movie. But how to feel like no one’s watching with all these people watching? I don’t even know most of them. I don’t even have an acting partner to bounce off of, and take the edge off – or rather, get on edge with. Maybe I should have scheduled another actor today. But it’s just me and my energy and myself. And the land. The land will be my partner. Rags, the little stuffed monkey I carry in the film, will be my partner.

I take a deep breath. So much planning went into this… Now I have to let it go, be in my right-brain Acting Zone. I am supposed to tumble and get impaled by a stick that lodges in my thigh. I have to feel and live that. Even though I am not in an impaled thigh kind of mood. Thankfully, it takes the crew so long to get ready, I have time to dream and feel and sense my way into this gravely impaled and injured thigh state. I look at my prosthetic impalement. a thing of art and grotesque beauty. Its gorgeous ripples of torn red, brown, and purple flesh cascade down off the impalement, corrugated by untold trauma. Just looking at the thing helps get me in the mood. I start trembling my leg, on purpose. Soon the trembling feels real and spreads throughout my body, into my mind. And I am feeling this injured impalement state.

The crew is staring, impatient. “We’re waiting.”

“What? Oh no, I was waiting for you.” They got it wrong. It is I who was waiting for them all this time… I was just spacing out into my Acting Zone while I waited. Let’s go. Wait, I have soot on my face in this scene, don’t I? Yes. And blood on my leg. And the prosthetic. I stop and get the soot from a plastic baggie, real soot from a recent California wildfire. I pour fake blood copiously on my impaled thigh. Check that the impalement is glued on firmly. We’re waiting…. Check. Check. Check. I got it all now. Now let’s go.

…The action is slow to get off the ground, coming in stops and starts. Much longer stops than starts. Is it my imagination, or does the crew take way too long to change lenses, shots, angles? We are doing simple stuff, the fall and the impalement. Scenes with only myself, to get us warmed up. Hardly any dialogue. Should be a breeze, I think. OK, there’s a few various shots and angles for this as it is an “action” shot. But I figured 6-7 pages today at least. Maybe ten! But we’re working out the kinks. And boy are there kinks.

After lunch, I start to fret. Two crew members spend gobs of time teaching each other the intricacies of their gear and their shooting philosophies. Come on, this isn’t a Socratic get together on the Athens market square. We have a movie to shoot in the middle of the desert. Most of the other crew members take the time as a chance to get in their umpteenth cigarette break of the day. Every time I turn around, there they are, gossiping and smoking, smoking and gossipping, and trading shop talk. It sets my teeth on edge, the smoking and talking on my dime. At one point after lunch, I tell a crew member we need to get a move on and get things done faster. This crew member looks at me like I am a Martian who just uttered unintelligible ET gibberish, the wide open eyes staring at me like I just wet my ET pants. Did I just not talk? …The pace stays just as slow as before.

The afternoon rolls on. The sun starts casting long shadows. A whole day and we’ve shot two pages! All non verbal easy stuff that should have gone much faster. We are at least three or four scenes behind. And I want to cry. Yup, lots of kinks to iron out. I should have hired a 1st AD to kick people’s butts. Apparently, when I do it, I just sound like a Martian uttering garbled ET speak who just wet its ET pants. I choose not to get too left brain and Nazi about it, choosing to stay in my right brain actor zone. So I settle for a sort of slow motion Zen movie-making style that goes at a snail’s pace. In between, gossiping and cigarette smoking and shop talk lectures abound… Zen. Just stay Zen.

The impalement scene is finally done.

“Can we please hurry and shoot the rattlesnake scene? The chicken gizzards have rotted. They can’t wait another day.”

For once, I must not sound like ET. We all bust ass to get to the top of a blustery hill that makes a great rattlesnake setting before the sun sets. We are rewarded with the most beautiful full desert moon. I stare at it with rapture for a moment. “OK, let’s go people. It won’t last.” Now the DP is hurrying me. Ironic.

All right, here are the raw materials we have to turn this into a violent, ominous, killer rattlesnake scene. We have a fake rental rattlesnake, made of some polyurethane material that’s seen better days (is its head actually falling off? Yup, it’s dangling by a polyurethane lump or two). Then we have a vicious-looking rattlesnake head with savage eyes and open fangs I bought on Ebay (it stinks of old shoes when you smell it, so I think it’s the real thing), and there’s some rattlesnake skin, also from Ebay. And the bloody chicken gizzards from the 24-hour desert Walmart, now rotting. They exist so I can pretend I’m gutting the snake. I also have a jackknife and fake blood.

OK, let’s set it all up. The rattlesnake is sneaking through the brush, following my bloody trail left by the impalement. You don’t know how hard it is to pour enough blood so your boots leave a trail of blood. But we finally get that on camera. Done. Now the snake slithering through the desert sand. It’s supposed to work, the guy who rented it out tied a nylon string you’re supposed to pull to make it look like it’s slithering around. But the old polyurethane slithers more like old frozen crepey skin from an old buzzard. A fake one  made of plastic. Ludicrous. We try pulling the snake, slithering the snake, letting it lie still, nothing works. It doesn’t look real. So much for the $300 dollar a week rental. We finally settle for leaving the snake still in the sandy brush. One crew member does manage to put the nylon string on the tail and shake it so it looks like it’s rattling its tail. That part works.

I get the bright idea to bury the snake’s almost decapitated foam head in the sand and put the vicious open fang snake head I bought on Ebay on top of it instead, so it looks like this fang head is coming out of the body, about to strike as I kill it. I take a jackknife and pretend to hack off its fang-slobbering head. Bam! A little editing magic and it’ll work. I hope. We’ll just have to buy stock footage of a slithering rattlesnake and edit it in.

On to the skinning and gutting. The yellow gold moon is now super low on the horizon, mega big and bright. The DP gets excited. Something about a Super Moon or a Strawberry Moon. “Hurry, let’s do it now!” With the Mega Moon behind me, I come up into frame from below as if I’d had just hacked the head off. I pretend to skin the snake with my jackknife. I studied Youtube videos on how to do this. I could probably skin a real one. I got this. Only I don’t. The snake’s crepey old plastic-foam skin doesn’t move right and the knife just kind of slides over it. Plus I’m hampered by the fact I can’t actually stab and gut this lumpy good for nothing snake, much as I would really like to obliterate it to bits. It would cost me upwards of $1000.

Now the gutting of the snake… and the rotting chicken gizzards. After a day in the desert sun, they must be crawling with Salmonella, e coli, and who knows what. They certainly smell like it. Squeamishly, I dig my hands into the gizzards and try my best to make it look like long snake guts. I pull to try and elongate them. But the gizzards are short and stubby without tension and they keep breaking up. After five tries and most of the chicken gizards destroyed on the ground around me, I finally make a somewhat real-looking pull. They hold long enough for the camera to catch them being pulled out of the lumpy snake. Oh, I hope this works.  I fling the snake on my back and take off in the moonlit night.

The DP is ecstatic over her moonlit shots. Strawberry Moon or Wild Moon or whatever it’s called. I’m still wondering how I will make that crepey lumpy snake look real as I clean chicken gizzards off the ground. No sense in getting a coyote sick with Salmonella.

Whew! It’s in the can! The moon is down and we have two and a half pages of my movie shot! I survived my first day of shooting!

Our cold and tired crew piles into the car caravan, each of us wondering what deliciousness Mountain Lady has cooked up for dinner.

And no, there will be no call sheets. You got that? NO CALL SHEETS! Tomorrow, back for more indie moviemaking high jinks, same time, same place.  And that’s your call sheet.