Sunday, August 14, 2011

Directing Fact #3 - The Books Are Right

Every book I read, every seminar I attended and everyone I talked to said the same thing. "Never do a movie with children or animals!" I guess I thought it was just something people liked to joke about, because I promptly went out and wrote a script that featured both.

It is not that all kids or animals are problems, in fact, I had a few really talented kids who were much more professional on-set than were some of the adults (including seven-year-old Chase Wainscott, pictured here). However, it only takes one or two poorly-behaved kids to turn the entire set into utter chaos. One of our most tension filled moments of the production came after about three hours of trying to get ten kindergartners to walk single file down a school hallway without looking at the camera. Everyone on the crew was yelling either at each other or at the kids. Between takes, the 2nd AD and one of the PA's were trying to keep the kids in a line by playing follow the leader between rows of desks in a classroom. One of the five year-olds looked at me during this exercise with seething hatred in his eyes and asked, "What is this, some kind of a circus?" Well, yes, actually. That is what it had become. The worst thing about the situation was that one of our executive producers had chosen that very moment to bring some of his friends on-set to see the production. They did not stay long.

When you realize that every additional take you shoot is money, it becomes important to cast professionals in your film so that you can get great stuff quickly and consistently. Screen actors must be skilled in doing multiple things at once. Not only do they have to jump into character immediately and remain in character for reaction shots, but they must at the same time perform precision blocking, hit floor marks exactly without looking, stay open to the camera when other actors move, and be conscious of leaving extra space in the dialogue for editing, Oh, and they must do the entire scene EXACTLY the same way every single time. Children, while they may be great on-screen, rarely have the ability to pull off this combination of things. They also need a lot of reminders about things like speaking clearly. Therefore, you spend a lot of time in additional takes and you pray that there will be options for cutting shots together with continuity once you get into the editing room. In addition to their acting inabilities, children are also subject to child-labor regulations that dictate a shorter workday with more breaks. This results in a less productive daily schedule.

Animals do not need much explanation, but you should heed the warnings there as well. Unless you are using trained animals, you will spend a lot of time even on the simplest task. We needed a dog to jump up in a window sill to scare our kids. No amount of coaxing or treats would do it for a good thirty minutes before we finally got lucky. Horses tend to be frightened by large reflectors and run away at the least opportune times. If you need just one or two to stand in a particular place, good luck. You have to use feed to get them there, but that also brings the other six horses from across the field. In most cases you have either no horses in your shot or too many. All that said, it is very rewarding to get a great shot with horses in the background.

Would I ever do a movie with children and animals again? Probably (except for kindergartners). But I would be sure to plan appropriately and spend more rehearsal time working through the exact blocking they would be doing on-set. I would also audition more carefully and would have someone stationed in the waiting room during auditions to find out which hellions we should send packing.