Days of Being Western

So, yesterday was the big Western film shoot day. We actually followed through on some pretty ambitious and grandious ideas yesterday.

The lead up to the Western challenge was slow in developing. Everyone definitely wanted to do a Western. We were all very much intrigued by the concept. However, the story ideas didn't really flow at first.

Making a Western could be a real trap. There are so many themes and elements that are so common, so cliche. You just have to believe that there will be a lot of filmmakers doing shootouts and showdowns. I think we all wanted to play with the genre, use familiar elements, but take it to a new level. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the story, not the typical norms, and take some more modern filmmaking and storytelling techniques into this effort.

Story development started to pick up about two weeks ago. Brock wrote an interesting script called The Remorseful. It was a shootout, but with a great opening, a good leadup, and a meaningful end. However, it required more wardrobed actors than we could reasonably get together. Sadly, yet another great Brock H. Brown screenplay on the shelf.

I swung by Pioneer Arizona Living History Village a week ago, on a whim. This village is a mile or so from my home, but it a destination with its own exit off the freeway, so I never have been by it before. It's a popular field trip destination. Well, this was a good whim. Pioneer has thirty or so actual historic buildings on ninety acres of land at the base of a mountain. Most of these buildings are from the last half of the Nineteenth Century, and were transported to Pioneer Village when it was founded, about fifty years ago.

Pioneer Village has everything, including the more fundamental things besides saloons, banks, and blacksmith shops. Of particular interest to me were the trade shops, like the Tonsorial Parlor, the Carpenter Shop, the Print Shop, and the Dress Shop, to name a few. These buildings were really decked out inside, fully outfitted with all the authentic artifacts. It really struck me that we should use these great buildings, and really soak up the ambiance. To get away from the shootouts and do a great story that was more focused on a common tradesman.

So, let's take a quick U-turn from that idea. My real first idea was to blow up the Western concept entirely. To put an alien--a big headed, bulgy-eyed alien--on the frontier and see what would happen when he ran into a pioneer family. We're talking mundane daily chores meets campy costumes and cheesy special effects. It was to a be a Western/Sci-Fi/Comedy entitled The Visitor. I'll get back to that later.

Gabe came up with a great script about a bank robbery, with a great twist, called Western Bank(is that the final title?). Brock busted out yet another screenplay, this time a chilling story of a town tormented by bandits, with a shocking twist, called The Hollows. It was great stuff. Finally, that night before the shoot, I put together some key props for a story about a printer in the Print Shop, and wrote half a screenplay, called Arizona Citizen, after the Tucson newspaper that started in 1870.

So there it was, we ended up with a total of five (maybe more) fairly well-developed story ideas, most of which were advanced even as far as the realm of storyboards, setups, and overheads. We're getting better at this.

For The Visitor, we recruited Bonnie and Joe as the parents, and Falyn and Sawyer as the kids. Angie played the alien. We got all the props and wardrobe together on Friday. Brock called up a family friend who was into Westerns, and we all came with whatever clothes we had that somewhat approximated "Western wear." And that was it, it really seemed like we might not have enough people to get any of these films made.

Now, we've had situations before where we had multiple stories on the table before. We had tossed about the idea of shooting more than one film in a single session. This last came up around the Almost Famous Film Festival 48 Hour Challenge. However, filmmaking is such hard work, we never had the energy to follow through. Undaunted, we arranged our shooting schedule around the idea of shooting three or four films in a single day, since we were paying for and had the location secured. Big plans.

We arrived at Pioneer Village around 9am, checked in, and carted everything out to the Ranch Complex, to shoot The Visitor. This was everyone's first look at Angie in full costume, and it was pretty wild. It was surreal on the set, and no doubt will be even more so once edited. We moved along smoothly, and almost everything worked out fine. The wind cooperated, the animals cooperated, the children cooperated. The clouds didn't always cooperate, but we can work that. Though it was smooth, it wasn't as quick as we had planned. We were supposed to be done by 10:30, but it took until noon.

We carted the gear back to the downtown area, into the Bank, and debated which film to make next over lunch. It was decided that since Joe could stick around, we would shoot Gabe's film next. However, in trying to get the first shot, we had camera problems, which we couldn't figure out at first. The camera wouldn't stay on for more than fifteen seconds at a time, and it looked like our grand plans were wrecked. However, eventually I had a Nintendo moment, and blew into the tape mechanism, and the camera started working again.

Gabe's shoot went very fast. It had been well planned out, and Gabe knew what he was going for. I was enlisted to be the bank teller, we improvised a costume, and I gave Gabe a quick tutorial on operating the GS400, and he was set from there. This film will look real terrific. I'm looking forward to seeing the shots through the teller window bars.

The bank shoot wrapped up very fast. It was about 2:30pm at that point, and we had access to the grounds and Print Shop for at least another half hour, maybe longer, and we had the great props I had put together for the printer story. I proposed shooting a final film in fifteen minutes, and doing it Tim Nm-style, handheld, improvised, exploratory, experimental, dynamic. Brock and Gabe geared up to act in this one, we mounted the camera on Gabe's new homemade steadicam, and invaded the Print Shop.

First pass was to soak in the ambiance on the Print Shop and all its intricacies, with fixed and moving shots of all the equipment, metal and wood typeblocks, trays, rulers, etc. Next, Brock came in, and I shot him exploring this environment firsthand, checking out blocks, operating equipment, and so on. Then we brought in Gabe and Joe to antagonize him, shot both sides of some heated conversations, plus the climactic and symbolic end of the film.

I think everyone had a lot of fun with this one, I know I did. Though we have had good success with typical shoots, and have gotten great results, I keep coming back to this style as more exciting and more fulfilling. It really is an exploratory experience, and the performances were very spontaneous and intense. The biggest obstacle is getting away from the "What do you want me to do now?" mentality, that specific actions are correct or desired. All I'm looking for is just to do, to interact, with both the environment and with the other characters. As long as you move, look, study, do, you can't make a mistake. It's very liberating.

That was that, it was 3:30pm, and we packed up and paid for the location, three films later. We actually did some very ambitious work and pulled it off, in only six and a half hours.

Back home, I immediately captured the footage and watched much of it. The Visitor looks terrific. Intended to be sepia toned, it was shot in color and looks great that way. Only some major exposure problems due to passing clouds may prevent this from staying in color. The LCD viewfinder doesn't do justice to the quality of the visuals on this camera. Western Bank looked great through the LCD, so I am sure it will look great when Gabe gets a chance to inspect the footage. Arizona Citizen has no sound, for an unknown reason. However, it's not a loss, because it looks fantastic, really amazing. So, hopefully we will record some dialog for it later, or maybe just subtitle it. It will see the light of day, and it will be all the more experimental due to the technical challenges!

It was a long weekend, between The Subject, and these Western films. I'm beat. I'll start up separate threads for The Visitor and Arizona Citizen, and post some stills later.


Brock said...

The printing film was really fun to shoot. I wish I had known a little bit about it before hand so I could have developed more of a character. Buuuut, I can see why Josh likes filming in that style. After I while, I did feel like I was just waltzing around the shop, going about my normal daily routine.

*Note: getting shot by the law because I'm a bleeding heart isn't part of my daily routine.

Joshua Provost said...

It's a good release after going through all the detailed "real" filmmaking, to do something a little different.

Jeremy said...

It sounds like lots of fun. I sure hope I see Tim Nm, though, before I start seeing these completed projects.