Cynthia’s Column May 2006
The first Hollywood moment came on the tarmac at the Calgary airport. I brought my son Nick, 23, and we were still on the plane, when my cell phone rang. It was my producer Jim asking if I could come straight to the production offices before going on to our hotel. No problem.
When we got to the car rental counter, they handed me a key and said they had upgraded me. To a huge, gleaming Chrysler 300 that looked like something the Prime Minister might drive. It wasn’t until a few days later that I noticed that the name on the paperwork they handed me with the keys was Yarmoushian. (When I returned it at the end of the week, they thanked me for bringing it back.) The fates were definitely smiling on us.
It was Thursday. The high in Calgary was one degree centigrade. The whole world looked like a fairyland. Every branch, leaf and tiny twig frosted in perfect white. I assumed it was always like this in the Canadian Rockies in winter, so foolishly took no pictures and by mid-afternoon it was gone. I found out later this is called “hoarfrost” and is rather rare, involving some sort of freezing fog. For a few hours it was Narnia.
The production offices were set up in an old army barracks west of Calgary. If you’ve never been in movie production offices, they’re fun. The main room has the Production Manager, Assistant Directors and office staff with phones going. Each of the smaller rooms houses a different department. The casting room has 8X10 glossy photos of the cast with the character name tacked under it along with flight information. The Prop room has guys making a stack of fake bestselling books for one of the characters to sign at a lecture. The Location Room has photos on the walls of all the locations shown from every angle. The Costume Room has racks of costumes for the actors and extras and you can see at a glance what the color palette of this movie is going to be. Browns and greens.
This is the first film I’ve had that shot in H.D. High Definition video. In order to make it look like film you have to choose colors it likes. In other words no white or blue and very few daylight exteriors. They tend to look too bright or glaring and it makes the movie look like video. Soap operas are shot on video. You know that look. We worked hard to avoid that, and on June 10 you can decide if we succeeded.
The Producer’s, Exec Producer’s and Director’s offices look like normal offices. The director’s is slightly larger to accommodate meetings and Neil has the entire script shrunk down to 4X6 inch pages is tacked up all across one wall.
And finally, drumroll please: The Scriptwriter’s Office! With my name outside the door. This was actually my first production office. I set up my laptop and plugged in to the internet, so I could fire off changes to Cameron, two rooms away, who would print out and distribute.
One more room I want to mention, because as writers you will appreciate it. The copy room. Lining the walls were waist-high stacks of cartons of computer paper in different colors. Every time you make revisions to a script in pre-production you get a set of the pages with changes (marked with asterix) on a different color paper. Starting with blue, pink, green, yellow and if you keep making changes you can go through an entire paper spectrum ending with buff and marigold and then going back to white. We only got as far as yellow on this one, but I’ve been on shoots that have gone all the way around the color wheel. Your script ends up looking like a paper rainbow that lost a game of 52 pickup.
The atmosphere of this production office was amazingly calm and quiet. People went around doing their jobs. You would never have guessed that they were shooting on Monday a film for which they’d had a very short prep. At the big production meeting with the whole crew there were no problems. I was amazed. The last shoot I was on in Luxembourg had a frantic crew speaking 5 languages and crises up the wazoo. Someone told me it was an Albertan thing, this easygoing, good-natured calmness. Cool. Works for me.
What changes did we have to make to the script? First of all the script, a thriller, had a symbolic water theme. The protagonist, a therapist named Joanna, is having nightmares about her high school boyfriend who drove his car off a bridge and may have drowned. And there’s a lot of rain. Did I mention the high in Calgary was 1 degree? We can make rain, but if you make rain in winter in Canada you’ll kill your actors and cause ice slicks and havoc. So all the water had to go.
We were on a very small budget, about half the budget of the Luxembourg shoot. Less than 2 million American dollars. But that turned out to be enough to buy an old car, run it down a hill and blow it up at the bottom. Cool, huh? So that replaced going off bridge. But the murder victim in the script was supposed to drown in a lake. Had to change that.
Here’s one example of the kind of story problems you have to solve on the spot. The scene where our therapist emotionally connects with the man who may be a murderer, but becomes her lover? It was triggered by several visual images, all involving water. So I had to rethink that. Going from grief to sex is a tricky transition to make. If I don’t pull it off, the audience will stop liking our heroine and that would basically ruin the second half of the movie. (Whenever an audience stops “being” the protagonist, you’ve lost them and won’t get them back.)
I had a setup of Joanna making Clay (whose lover has just been murdered) promise not to kill himself. Then later, when she’s being questioned by the police, her cell phone rings and Clay’s voice says, “You have to let me off my promise.” So she rushes to his hotel to try to find this suicidal guy. It had been a crying in the rain on the street thing, and now I was literally dry.
Okay, I’m thinking, suicide, suicide…how would he try to kill himself? No guns, knives, gas ovens, car exhausts… How about sleeping pills? Easy to get over the counter. Okay. She can’t find him in the hotel, she rushes out onto the street and he’s walking toward her. He says too calmly, “It’s okay. I’m okay. Go home, Joanna.” She sees a plastic bag under his jacket and yanks it away from him. Boxes of sleeping pills go scattering across the sidewalk. He goes down to try and grab them back, they have a few harsh words, she’s kicking the boxes into the gutter and he breaks down crying on his knees and she is holding him and bingo. You’ve got the grief to fear to emotional connection transition that can definitely be the bridge to bed. Everybody liked this solution and the prop guys instantly started making fake brand sleeping pill boxes.
Saturday was the “Table Read” where actors are together for the first time and read the script aloud. Our star actress is Jolene Blalock. If you have ever seen Star Trek Enterprise, she’s the beauty who plays a Vulcan. All the other actors and the entire crew (aside from Exec Producer Jim and myself) were Canadian. If you have “Canadian Content” you can save a lot of money and even get co-production funding, without which you can’t really make this kind of movie on this kind of budget, so Hurrah for Canada!
Saturday night the producers took us all out to dinner and we spent four hours eating and drinking and bonding. Nick, 23, got to spend that four hours sitting next to Jolene. I snapped this picture and his trekkie friends are so jealous their hair is smoking.
Sunday was a day off. Nick and I drove up to Banff and Lake Louise and under snow it looked like locations for Lord of the Rings. Incredibly Himalayan.
Monday we started shooting. The first week of filming was all shot in the hotel where we were staying. Fabulously convenient. A five foot tall sign in the lobby stated that there was film being shot and if you chose to appear in this area, it would “constitute your irrevocable consent to being filmed and the use of such film in any and all media throughout the universe in perpetuity.”
I sat with the exec producer, and script supervisor in directors chairs in front of two flat screen monitors showing what the two cameras were getting. On a film shoot, the one thing that can completely destroy what you’re trying to do is bad acting. If you get stars who can’t act, you’re done for. We got lucky here. Jolene Blalock, bless her Vulcan heart, is a wonderful actress. And the guy playing Clay, Martin Cummins, is not only hot (Google him, girls. You will not be sorry.) but a terrific actor as well. One reason writers love actors. If they’re good they save you. They even occasionally make you look brilliant. If they’re bad, they bury you.
Nick didn’t get to work here as the Canadian Content rules are strict. But he does walk through the lobby in one scene. Joanna and Clay are hugging and a giant walks behind them. That’s Nick. He’s only 6 foot really, but these actors aren’t large, which you don’t actually realize until Nick walks behind them. Oh well. That’s my favorite part, obviously.
On Thursday Nick and I headed back to Oregon. We hugged everyone and adored them all and as we slipped away, we looked back at the front of the hotel where Martin was on his knees on the sidewalk, boxes of sleeping pills scattered into the street, sobbing in Jolene’s arms. That’s the magic of moviemaking. You can invent a scene on Friday, and a few days later actual human beings are acting it out on the sidewalk in Calgary, Canada as people in cars drive by in the background, unknowingly giving their permission for these images to be seen in any and all media throughout the universe in perpetuity.