Location scouting

One of the first tasks in getting The Movie on its feet was picking locations. We spent about three weeks scouting — almost as long as we shot.

I didn’t think I’d written a very location-driven movie, but it ended up being a bit of a monster. Part of that was budget — if we’d had serious money, we could have spent our way out of some problems. But the bigger issue was the schedule. The movie is broken into three parts, and for reasons I won’t divulge, we had to shoot the parts in a very specific order. We couldn’t swap Day 4 for Day 9. Which meant we had to have a given location available on exactly the right day.

Complicating matters, we needed dense forest close enough to Los Angeles that we wouldn’t have to put up crew overnight. In Vancouver, you’ve got forest everywhere. In Los Angeles, we have Angeles Crest, but the parts that looked right were way too far from the main roads. Logistically, it would have been impossible.

Fortunately, we found great stuff in Topanga and Malibu. The rest of our locations had to fit in around them.

The movie was shot almost entirely on practical locations (that is, real places rather than sets). The exception was one day shot at the Hearst Building in Downtown LA, an old newspaper plant that’s been converted into standing sets for film and television. It’s a super-creepy building made even stranger by the sets. Walk around a corner and you’re in a hospital. Open a door, and it’s the filthiest motel room you’ve ever seen. It’s hard to tell where movie-squalor ends and actual squalor begins.

I’ve put together a two-minute reel of the locations we ended up using. When the movie’s done, you’ll be able to see how we used them. The last clip is the hotel we shot in New York City.

(Because you’ll ask: The music is by Alex Wurman, our composer.)

I want a cheap, slutty DVD player

Here’s the thing: I don’t need anything fancy. I don’t use-slash-need many advanced features, like super slo-mo or bookmarking. I just want a DVD player to play whatever disc I put in it, no matter where it’s from, without complaining.

I don’t want a princess. I want a whore.

I’m not even talking about multi-region or unlocked players. I just want one that can consistently play a DVD-RW of dailies burned on some random PA’s computer without bitching. I don’t know if that means a more advanced player, or a lamer one, but I’m officially sick of trying a disc in three different players before finally getting it to work on my MacBook.

I suspect my ideal DVD player is a no-name made in Guangzhou which can play drink coasters. If anyone can point me towards it, thanks in advance.

I choose flight

Let’s face it: there are no bad superpowers. But given the choice of only one, I’d pick flight.

Yes, plain old boring flight, common to so many superheroes that it hardly ranks as special. However, when you look at the so-called alternatives, you find that there’s really no competing with the classic.

Great, fine, love it. Stop a train, move a mountain. You’re strong, we get it. But strength is only useful if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Consider this: You’re the world’s strongest man in the middle of the Sahara desert. Not so fuggin’ helpful, is it?

My hunch is that after a few weeks of being pervy, you’d realize that invisibility is pretty much exactly like ordinary life. That is, no one really cares if you’re there or not. True story: I used to work in Oliver Stone’s office. The assistant who previously sat at my desk was a hot young woman. Oliver always ogled her when he walked by. Because I am not a hot young woman, Oliver did not ogle me. (And thank god.) The joke was that I was invisible. If need be, I could walk into his office and just grab something off his desk — he’d merely see it floating away. So don’t think of invisibility as a superpower. It’s more of a trait, like having good abs, or leprosy.

Running really fast would be cool. But do you know what would be even cooler? Flying. And it’s hard to run to the moon, hotshot.

Size control
The ability to get really big or really small seems great until you realize that the world is pretty much built for normal-sized people. I’ve had the pleasure of working with both a little person (Deep Roy) and a giant (the late Matthew McGrory). Great folks. Wouldn’t trade places with them. And I have a strong suspicion that as you slide further up or down the logarithmic scale, life doesn’t get better.

Power ring
Don’t insult me. Green Lantern has no superpowers. He has a prop.

Yeah, that would be pretty awesome. But I’ve watched Star Trek. Something always goes wrong, and you end up inside a wall, or a Vulcan. Pass.

I can already read minds, and let me tell you, people are so much sicker than you can imagine. It’s like listening to an internet sex chat room through earphones. Plus, I already know that I’m bald. I don’t really need to go around hearing, “Hey, that guy is bald” all day.

It would be handy to move things with one’s mind. But I don’t really need this power, because I have production assistants. Witness: “Linde, would you get me a Diet Coke with Splenda, please?” And it arrives, as if by magic. (As a general rule, any superpower that can be closely approximated by paying someone minimum wage is not really a superpower.)

I’m going to leave out the truly lame superpowers like weather control, because you know the so-called heroes who have these abilities are secretly ashamed. They’re the synchronized swimmers of the superhero Olympics: sure, you get to compete, but don’t pretend it’s the same. You’re embarrassing all of us.

Which leaves flight as the only valid superpower choice. And for the record, I’m not talking flying-with-wings like Angel in X3. I want good old-fashioned two-hands-aimed-at-the-sky.

Call me old school, but to me, that’s the only way to fly.

What’s it like being the writer and director?

Being the writer and the director on a project it seems that you both create the story and then bring it to life. What are the biggest struggles in doing this? And how much liberty do you allow an actor to take with the lines?

— Steve
Lakeland, Florida

For readers who don’t know, I just finished directing an indie movie that will hopefully see the light of day in 2007. (I’ve been chastened against continuing to call it a tiny movie, because it’s not about an albino’s friendship with a cricket, or somesuch. The producers would like me to stress that it actually does have commercial prospects, even if not measured on a blockbuster scale.)

For me, the biggest challenge in being a writer/director is that I really wasn’t a writer while I was on set. I was 100% director, figuring out how to get the scene to work, how to get the performances right, how to get in four more setups before lunch. On other films, when I’ve been “just” the writer on set, I’d often notice things that the director might overlook — small inconsistencies or subtle changes that could screw things up four scenes later.

But here, there was no writer. There was just me. And I was too busy directing the scene to step out and think about the bigger picture.

To some degree, I’d anticipated this going in, so I tried to compensate. “John’s Big Notebook” was a fat three-ring binder that held not only the script and the storyboards, but also my notes on every scene — sort of a last chance for the writer to tell the director what to pay attention to. (In truth, I ran out of time in prep, so the scene notes stopped after the first act.)

During production, I got up at five every morning to write the day’s shot list, which is basically a crib sheet for what shots I thought I would need to shoot in order to complete a given scene. That was usually my last chance to really study the scripted scene and figure out what was important.

I also relied on others. The script supervisor would point out if I was omitting a scripted action, and my producers were nearby to offer assistance.

But at times, the writer resurfaced. One night while watching dailies, I realized something new about one of the characters. So I rewrote a scene for the next day. After two solid weeks of strictly directing, it was oddly exhilarating to remember that I am in fact a writer. Directing is just my day job.

In terms of leeway with the dialogue, I was always willing to let the actors say something better. Often, it wasn’t better, so after a take or two, I’d nudge them back onto the text. (This is also the script supervisor’s domain.) I don’t think I was being particularly writer-ly in getting actors to stick to the script. John August, director, knew what he wanted. Most actors, these actors, respond well to thoughtful requests.

One section of the movie has a combination of scripted and unscripted scenes, which ended up being my favorite thing to shoot. The luxury of having gifted actors and a lot of videotape is that they could simply start having a conversation in character, and seamlessly work in all of the scripted material. One scene had an 18-minute continuous take.

To me, this section was the best synthesis of writing and directing. While I was listening, I had to keep thinking how to steer the scene in an interesting direction. It was a screenwriter’s dream: My characters were alive in front of me, looking for something to talk about.

So I made a movie

My extended absence from johnaugust.com can now be explained: I’ve just finished shooting a movie, an honest-to-God feature film. A tiny film, to be certain, more likely to be seen at festivals than fourteen-plexes, but a movie nonetheless.

Officially, it’s my directing debut, but it hasn’t really felt like it.

As screenwriters go, I’ve always been pretty involved in production. (For instance, I directed second unit on Go.) And in television, the creator of a show ends up playing a huge role on set; my two pilots have been like directing with a seasoned pro to spot me. So even though I couldn’t necessarily say which light is working as key and which one as fill, I felt confident pointing with two fingers in a V to indicate “camera goes here.”

So what’s the movie about?

Well, here’s where I slink back into secrecy a bit. Trust me: My silence is only to protect you from fatigue and boredom. Even in the fastest timeline, we’re editing through the end of the year, then playing festivals in 2007. If a distributor buys the film, then maybe, maybe we would show up in theaters at the end of 2007, but 2008 is probably more likely.

I have trouble staying interested in a movie for 80 minutes, much less 18 months. So I’ll save the details until we’re much, much closer.

Suffice to say it’s a drama — hopefully funny in places, but unlikely to be slotted in the “Comedy” section of Blockbuster. (Assuming Blockbuster still exists in 2008.) It’s currently untitled (or, Untitled John August Project on IMDb). But it’s not the Untitled John August Project from several years ago at Sony, which I can tell you now was sort of like King Kong but scarier. And never got written.

The Movie (which is how I’ll refer to it from now on) is broken into three parts, like Go, but that’s pretty much the only similarity to Go. The Movie both is and isn’t a sequel to an earlier work, which I mean as cryptically as possible.

We shot 22 days in Los Angeles, with two days in New York City (where I am as I type this). We had a terrific cast, and an extremely hard-working crew — pretty much all union, which is rare for such a tiny movie. We shot a combination of film and video, with everything being posted in HD.

In coming weeks and months, I’ll write more about the process. But for now, I’ll be getting ready for the helicopter unit.

Yes, we’re a tiny movie with helicopter shots. Who wrote this shit?