The Shoot

After getting to Minnesota we all jumped into a van and did the tech scout over one long day.  Fortunately, all the locations were relatively close together, but it’s still the country and even when things are close together it’s still a lot of driving.  Field after field… At every location we started off by just walking around, taking it all in.  Because it was the first time I was seeing the places in person I needed a moment to get my bearings and map out the various scenes.   After wrapping my own head around each locale, Todd and I walked through every location and discussed all the action and developed a shot list along with some rough framings.

As the starting line loomed everything got a little bit rushed – which I’m sure is the case on every independent production.  But I know we would’ve all loved another week or so of prep time, but if we didn’t shoot it now, there was little chance we’d get it done before snowfall.

Day 1

For our first day we had everyone drive up to Foley from the Twin Cities.  That’s when I really started to appreciate the scale of what we were attempting to pull off.  We were moving a sizable amount of resources well over an hour outside of the nearest city – which meant that if we needed anything, it was at least two hours away.

So we arrived at our first location – the road where Lew is selling sweet corn, the opening shot to our film.  And that’s when we learn we don’t have a hero truck…  Somehow we ended up with the wrong picture vehicle for Lew – it was much too nice.  No truck.  Not only was this a problem for our first shot, but our entire film as well – 70% of the story takes place in Lew’s truck.  Fortunately, we had some very resourceful and dedicated people on our production.  Lije, Mike Arnold, and Ryan Smith took to the streets of Foley – and every neighboring town – and started knocking on doors.  While they started that process – continuously texting possible trucks back to me – we reshuffled our schedule.  This is when I realized the film gods might be toying with us on this production…

We started off with Linus’ drive across the open field.  Fortunately, Mikandrew grew up riding bikes just like this so the shot wasn’t a problem for him.  From there we shifted into the shed.

While shooting the emotional breakdown in the truck Mikandrew actually hit the steering wheel so hard that he hurt his hand – which fueled his performance.  In this fit of anger he actually punched the rearview mirror, cracking the windshield and smashing the mirror.  In the film it’s possible to see a chunk of glass fall onto the dashboard.  I knew when to stop after one take.

Heading into lunch time our team managed to find a truck – not just any truck, but the perfect truck.  Truly, it was the exact truck from my visual treatment.  It had a crack in the windshield that was glued together, a rusted body, a worn interior, and it drove like hell… And the squeaks it made whenever someone started it up were almost clichéd.  It was perfect.  It wasn’t the most comfortable ride for Lyle, but it suited his character.  And I gotta hand it to Lyle – being able to create a nuanced performance while managing the operation of that vehicle was no easy feat.

At the end of day one we managed to get all of our shots in the can – even with all the last minute change ups.  It felt like a small miracle.  Like most shoots, each day feels like a week…   After that first day we went to the hotel – that place was insane.  So insane, in fact, that I wrote this little blurb about it.  

Day 2

One of the other reasons I pushed for shooting over these specific four days was because a storm front was heading towards us.  And I really wanted rain for the end scene (would’ve been nice if we could’ve made it on our own, but alas).  Of course, the rain came a little earlier than expected – at the start of day 2.  And this footage needed to match with the footage from the first day.  Over the course of this day I became obsessed with radar weather apps.  We rolled every time there was a gap in the storm clouds.  And then every time the rain picked up we moved to a covered set and shot inserts.  It was not a barrel of monkeys.

In order to pull off the town scene we had to gather loads of extras – something we didn’t have going into the day.  Fortunately, shooting a little movie wasn’t something the folks up in Foley saw every day – so after asking around for a half-hour we were able to gather everyone we needed for the scene.

Due to circumstances out of his control, Chad had to miss the first day of filming.  He arrived just in time for the rain.  Having him on set as both a writer and co-producer was great.  We were able to discuss the scenes in detail after seeing them unfold on set.  Because we were moving quickly and trying to beat the rain there were some compromises that had to be made in order to get the bare essentials in the can and Chad really helped me determine where sacrifices could afford to be made.

After getting the town work wrapped up we moved onto the process trailer – which is where we planned to spend the remainder of the day.   Trying to get through the bulk of the script between little bouts of rain proved to be more than a little frustrating.  But what production has ever gone exactly to plan?

There’s a lot that takes place in that truck – it gets a little claustrophobic.  Originally, I planned to really dial up the claustrophobia visually – with clever shots peppered in throughout.   But the circumstances of the weather and our production forced me to really look at the value of those clever shots – I quickly realized they were just that, clever.  And there’s nothing worse than getting pulled out of a film simply because a director thinks his camera is more important than the actor’s face.

So basically we’d roll for a couple takes on the process trailer and then pull over the wipe down the windshield.  It was a little nutty.  Part of me wonders if the stress of the weather fed into the performances – that natural irritation.

Day 3

SPOILER ALERT – PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.  

Seemingly just how we planned it the rain showed up right on time.  When we arrived at our farm location that morning it was coming down pretty hard.  But at least we were expecting it.  Man, I don’t know that I’ve ever spent more time looking at my radar and weather apps – truly.  Between takes I was glued to my screen, checking to see how things were proceeding.

Because the location for Lucille’s kitchen was so small I blocked the scene with the actors in a nearby barn.  As it rained outside we used sticks and chairs to figure out the basic movement of the action.  While I love keeping things loose and spontaneous on set, there was the added fact that we were trying to capture this scene in a single take.  Why?  One, it really dialed up Linus’ claustrophobia – continuing the feeling present throughout in the truck.  And, two, it added a degree of tension to our performances.  Fortunately, all of our actors knew how to use the stress of the shoot in their performances.

For the most part we only did two takes for each set-up.  Sometimes there were three, but rarely more.  Our kitchen scene probably had the most with 6 or 7.  Here’s a funny little tidbit – we barely touched Lucille’s kitchen.  How it looks in the film is damn close to how it looked when we walked on set.  That’s the sort of natural production design I hoped we’d be able to take advantage of by shooting in this locale.  Luckily, it was proving to be the case.

When we shifted everything outside the rain started coming down even harder.  This is exactly why I wanted to shoot over this specific four-day period.  Finally, a weather forecast was almost right on.

From the first time I read the script there was always this nagging doubt as to whether our actors would be able to hold up the simple ending – the look after the money is discovered in the truck.  It’s one line in the script, but it had to accomplish so much more emotionally on film.  Lyle and Bruce really made this moment their bitch.  Watching Lyle, I felt terrible asking for additional takes – I mean this was the final shot of the film.  It had to hold up the weight of everything that came before.  No pressure.  But he nailed every iteration.

After getting some amazing footage in the can we moved onto the auction scene.  Part of what influenced our decision for this location was the fact that there was an actual auction the same day of our shoot.  What are the odds?  It was a much larger auction than one might typically see for a single family, but it worked for us – we just had to shoot around the size of the event.

Because this was a multiple family auction there was a ton of stuff – anything from a busted wheelbarrow to brand new tractors.  It ran the entire gambit.

For the ease of getting around and grabbing shots we ended up shooting this handheld.  To be honest, after looking at the footage in the edit bay part of me wished we would’ve shot this entire scene handheld.  Oh well – what director doesn’t think about how he or she could’ve done things differently and (maybe) better.

We were missing a few shots from the prior day that we had to go back and get after the rain dissipated that afternoon.  There was a bunch more driving in the truck and some pick-up shots of Linus.  And at the very end of the day we were able to finally get the end of the chase scene in the can.  It was a scene that had been on the docket for day two, but alas.  So we ended up shooting it just as the sky opened up.  It turned out pretty gorgeous.

Day 4

SPOILER ALERT – PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.  

By day four we were in a great rhythm.  I know both Chad and I wanted to keep shooting – it was such a pleasure to be back on one of our own sets.

We started our day with the drive up to Lucille’s house – pretty simple, but there’s a lot going on in this moment.  And we had to keep it feeling pretty nonchalant so as to not tip our hand.  Then we moved into the moment where Linus leaves the money for Lew – which turns out to be Lew’s downfall.  Outside of getting the money in the visor to clearly register with the audience we also needed this emotional beat to really connect us to Linus and his good nature.  If we weren’t with Linus already, this is the final little nudge over the edge to fully connect us with him.  Really, we never know exactly why Linus robbed the bank, but this action lets us in on the possibility that it may have been for a good cause.  Not that there’s ever a “good” reason to rob a bank, but we can surmise from his selflessness that – like most of these characters – he’s driven to this point by forces outside his control.

There’s only one section in the film with camera movement that’s not connected to the truck in motion. When Linus escapes the house and makes a run for it is the only time our camera tracks with a character.  Before this moment Linus is metaphorically trapped in the truck – hopefully our audience feels as claustrophobic as Linus by the end of the trek.  Once he makes a break for it we’re right there with him.

There was this hilarious moment during one of the takes where a farm cat leapt out for Linus as he raced by.  It didn’t make the final cut, but I wanted to share it here:  Cat Attack _ Dailies

From here we rolled – in order – right into the death scene in the barn.  Blocking this out was a challenge, but it was one of the most satisfying bits of collaboration from the entire production.  I loved the fact that these characters were – for the first time, really – stepping into the shadows.  It was completely naturalistic the way we played the moment – just a subtle element to the scene.

Watching the emotional punch Lyle and Mikandrew brought to this moment was powerful.  Not unlike the ending, there’s a lot communicated through their eyes in this exchange.  I felt like my main job was to get out of their way and let them find what they needed on their own.  Of course, I was there if they needed me, but they didn’t – so I stepped back and watched.  Sometimes knowing how to direct means knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

I think everyone in the barn felt the darkness of this scene as it unfolded – good people doing something horrible, unable to stop it… Of all the scenes this one had the most coverage.  And it wasn’t due to lack of confidence on my part – it was because I really wanted to keep these characters visually isolated.  Even though there was a fair amount of coverage we kept our camera work simple.

After getting this scene – which took a huge chunk of the day – we raced to a nearby road where we shot Lew and Linus picking up Lucille on the side of the road.  From there we raced the light to the gas station.

Due to circumstances I ended up driving our hero truck to the gas station.  Man, that thing is a pain in the ass to drive.  I’ve never driven something with a looser steering wheel.  I had to really plan ahead if I planned to make a turn.  By the time we got to the gas station the light was quickly disappearing.

It was a race to the finish and due to the weather (which cost us at least a half a day – maybe more) we didn’t have a lot of transitional shots and inserts.   At the end of it all we had about 90% of our film.  Luckily we were able to keep a skeleton crew on for another partial day with Lyle and Mikandrew.  That’s when we got our remaining shots in the can.  So at the end of it all we shot the film – 22 pages – in about 4 and ¾ days.  Not bad.  What would’ve happened had we been given 6…?