Friends, family and donors have asked me about how everything worked on the production of CARRY ME — an episodic story about a wealthy LA couple who decide to hire a surrogate to have a second child. Here’s the inside scoop:
Pre-production began right after I was admitted to AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) program. In the beginning of April, all the LA-based DWWers met with an Indiegogo representative who gave us tips on how to crowd fund. I’d never done anything like this, and when I told my mother I was going to have to ask friends and family for money, she replied “Oh, how awful!” Like her, I’d rather have asked for a bite of a stranger’s french fries at a restaurant. But a filmmaker has to get used to asking for money. Luckily, my supporters (and if you are one, thank you) stepped up and I hit my $17,500 goal before the month was out and extended it to $19,000, so that by the end of May I was totally funded.
Meanwhile, my DWW cohorts and I had submerged ourselves in five weeks of intensive AFI classes about everything from narrative POV to directing actors. Afterward, I had six weeks to prepare for my five-day shoot starting on July 18th. I rewrote and condensed the three short episodes, with which I’d applied to AFI, into one single episode. I searched for wonderful people to hire on my student budget. And I banged my head against a wall trying to find good locations within the 30-mile Studio Zone (a 30-mile radius from the map point intersection of Beverly and La Cienaga Boulevards) that didn’t cost triple my monthly mortgage payment for one day’s rental. I lost a wonderful production designer to a feature film job, but then found a kickass one who spent weeks looking online to find the right baby head photo for the surrogacy office scene.
Five days before we started shooting we 1) lost the rental on an Alexa camera and had to go with a Canon C500 2) needed to reschedule our shooting day for the surrogacy agency scene and 3) we were forced to change the location of the wealthy couple's home (which belongs to the lead actress) to the home of a producer's friend in Sherman Oaks. It takes a village!
It seemed like the film gods were against us. Our first day there was a torrential downpour (almost never happens in this dry city), which had us running late and battling lighting issues. But we got great footage. All the actors were fantastic. Ashley Crow came in for the one day and delivered a pitch perfect performance of the worldly wise mother and grandmother.
The second day of the shoot was as hot as the previous day had been wet, so when the DP, actors and I hopped into the air-conditioned car to film the scene, we were punchy and exhausted. Moments later, when we realized we had lost the car which contained our sound mixer, producers and AD (who calls herself directionally challenged), we couldn't stop laughing. We did, eventually, find them.
I love my actors. James Iha completely gave himself over in his first acting role as Daren, the wealthy husband who’s not sold by the idea of surrogacy. Madeline Zima couldn’t have been more appealing as Delia, the potential surrogate. And Sarah Clarke brought her usual tour de force naturalism and nuance to Julia, the wealthy woman who’s set on getting what she wants. The actresses who came in to play the surrogate interviewees (Carrie Barrett, no relation, except in spirit, Tamika Keaton-Donegal, Ashley Dulaney and Tessa Sugay) had the whole cast and crew in stitches. This shoot was also my first time directing kids who weren't my own. Franky Johnson, Landry and Jonah Zeitlin were all adorable and fun to work with. They gave me great material, especially when they ignored my direction and improvised. Those are the takes, of course, that I ended up using.
My crew was incredibly top drawer and professional, something exceptional given the pittance or less they received as payment. Ashley Swanson made all offices and homes feel real and right. I love the outfits Kristen Sandelin found for my actors. Can’t wait for you all to see how well Marc Villafan lit everything.
After the long shooting days, it felt indulgent to enter the editing phase — the place where you sit down and see what footage you actually got and how you can use it to make a good story. It’s as if you’re a painter who’s spent loads of time and energy mixing colors and then you get to make your picture.
Karoliina Touvinen (and yes, there’s supposed to be two “i”s in her name, it’s Finnish) is an AFI editing student who immediately connected with the CARRY ME script. She’s had a lot of experience and brought a sharp eye to all the takes, almost always choosing the one I naturally preferred. Most first rough assemblies are nightmares in which nothing seems to work, but after a week with the footage, she handed me a well crafted first cut that perfectly captured the script. Editing is always about cutting and shaping a piece to make it better than what was written. Along the way many scenes were halved, truncated. I had to cut much of the fantastic performance Karen Strassman gave playing Anne Baxter, the head of the surrogacy agency — a corporate-type, classist snob who viewed the character of Delia as a clueless tart — because I hadn't pushed the character of Delia to come off as promiscuous enough to warrant Anne Baxter’s bad opinion of her. It's hard to slash and burn a good performances, but necessary sometimes for the good of the whole piece.
While editing, I began conversations with Craig Wedren (singer/songwriter in the band Shudder To Think and now TV and film composer) and James Iha (guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins and one of my lead actors) about the music. We all decided on dry humor with a dash of melancholy. What they delivered was even better, because they also threw in quirky and a hint of strange. Don't miss the talent agency scene's 70s-style funk turned edgy, like Gene Hackman walked into a David Cronenberg film with Amy Schumer. Okay, maybe that's just my fantasy.
With the edit locked, I headed to Peter Swartz at Color Space Finishing, who crushed the blacks and gave the colors more saturation and contrast. The whole color correcting process is like showing up at a hair stylist with what you feel is already a good hair cut, and then leaving with highlights, low lights and a blow out that looks amazing. The color corrector takes something good and makes it better. That’s what Peter did to CARRY ME.
Right now CARRY ME is in its final stages at Smart Post Sound, a place I’ve come to love. They do post sound work on 51 television shows right now, including one of my favorites: The Good Wife. And they’ve given my project the same kind of rigorous professional attention as they do the network shows, taking out unwanted noises and adding the sounds of foot steps, moving chairs, etc. Because of them, no one will hear the pitter patter of rain outside the window in the Delia's kitchen scene. About a dozen lines were dubbed by actors in the studio there to make them better. And what’s wonderful is that the guys I’ve worked with there so far — Joe Melody and Matt Kallen — are loads of fun. We’re set to work with Smart Post’s maestro Larry Benjamin on Wednesday, December 9th to put all the dialogue, foley and music together for the final mix. Then all we need to do is add opening and ending titles and credits and we’re FINISHED!
Because this short is really an episodic piece that calls out for more, I’m not sending it on the film festival circuit but using it to pitch as a Web series or TV show. AFI DWW, in the heroic form of Patty West, will aid in this process by providing mentors and advice. Please cross fingers for me and my team.