Frozen Grapes and Apple Juice Saved My Actor’s Life

Labor Day weekend 2017 was an extraordinarily hot one in the Bay Area. Headlines shouted that the heat wave “shattered” all-time records in San Francisco, with the thermometer hitting 106 in The City. Santa Cruz was the hottest it’s ever been, since records started being kept in 1874. Beforehand, news reports warned of “potentially deadly” heat, though I can’t find any reports of deaths. In Berkeley, where I was scheduled to shoot a short film in an un-air conditioned apartment (because very few people in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley have AC) it hit 99 on Saturday. This posed problems.

I’d been working on this shoot since May, when I first wrote the script. While my professional commitment is to publishing and the general spread of knowledge, I still love writing and wanted to graduate from writing scripts solely as exercises. So I decided to write something I could actually shoot. On June 2, I met with my first actor, a co-worker of mine with a theater degree, for whom I had written the lead role. On June 19, I had what I considered to be the “Go/No Go” meeting: I called my father-in-law and asked if I could borrow his camera for the production. He said yes. So, with one actor and a camera — and with my wife lined up as producer and production designer — it was time to get going.

With Franny in charge of props, set dressing, and wardrobe, I was freed up to work through July and August on securing the rest of the talent (two more actors), scouting and securing locations, rehearsing, and learning how to shoot video well. In theory, this was plenty of time to prepare.

The story was relatively simple, but it did involve three locations: an interior apartment, a track, and hiking/biking trails. Finding the apartment was tricky because even a modest production like this requires several people, plenty of equipment, and lots and lots of food. Who could we put out of their home for a day or two? Thankfully, another coworker of mine came through. She has a wonderful apartment with great natural light, and was planning to be out of town Labor Day weekend. She generously allowed us to use it for a day.

The trails were easy, too. There’s a great open space near my apartment, and the final scene could be shot on a ridge top almost exactly a mile from where I live. The track gave me some stress, but ultimately I decided to use the high school track near my apartment. Ideally, I would have liked to do it in Berkeley or Oakland, considering all of the talent and crew lived over there, with neither my sound mixer nor my male lead having cars, but this one was likely to be less crowded when it came time to shoot. I can deal with the logistical headaches of driving people 25 minutes to a location, I figured; I can’t deal with an overcrowded track.

With my coworker as the lead, I needed a man to play her boyfriend and a runner/actor to play her friend. I found an amazing, ideal, perfect candidate for the latter, whom we didn’t even audition. She’s an actor, fitness model, former Division I hurdler, and easily the nicest, most laid-back person I’ve ever met. She was perfect for the role and a joy to work with. We did audition the male part, using a free “study” room in the Walnut Creek library on a Saturday morning in mid-July. Considering this was an unpaid role, I had trouble generating interest — at least from qualified candidates.

I had fairly rigid needs for this role. I wanted a non-white actor, though I was otherwise indifferent to race/ethnicity. (If I had cast a white man in this role, it would have been an exclusively white cast, and that’s not okay.) He had to be mid-20s, or at least able to pull off that age. (Most of the applicants for the role were very, very young.) He had to be athletic, or at least intense. And he had to be a good actor.

With few qualified applicants, I scheduled four auditions, half of whom no-showed. One actor was late but seemed committed, fun to work with, and invested in the project. (Oh, how I was mislead.) He’s the one we went with.

The next month became a struggle just to schedule rehearsals, while performing the rest of the producing and directorial tasks.

One problem with deciding to do the exterior scenes — the running scenes — in my town is that it is much, much hotter in Walnut Creek than it is on the other side of the hills. The summer fog that keeps San Francisco and other parts of the East Bay cool rarely reaches us all the way out here. (This is where I usually rage against the Bay Area housing market that has effectively forced us to live over an hour from our respective workplaces, and the hilarity that the tony suburb of Walnut Creek is more affordable than Oakland or Berkeley. If we wanted to move to the cool side of the hills, we’d have to move into a worse apartment while paying significantly more. Or we’d have to get a roommate. Either way, it’s not happening.) One of the two track scenes was an evening running scene with both the male and female leads, while the other was a solo running scene to be shot in the early morning.

When we did our walk-through of the evening running scene, it was around 100 degrees, and I was starting to get nervous about my decision to do the track scenes out here on the hot side of the hills. Luckily, I thought as I put together the call sheets a week before the shoot, Labor Day weekend was supposed to be cooler.

Then came reports of the heat wave. No longer projected to be cool and comfortable, Labor Day weekend was now going to be the hottest weekend in Northern California history. A few days before production began, I saw that it was supposed to still be in the mid-90s in Walnut Creek at 7pm on Sunday, when we were scheduled to shoot the evening track scene. We just couldn’t do that, so I moved it to a middle school track in Berkeley. I had scouted this track and it wasn’t ideal, but I figured that it would at least be empty, considering it would be the Sunday night before Labor Day and a historic heat wave.

This is where I should note that we were filming without permits, since this was a non-commercial film project. Effectively (and legally), it was little different from a student film. Having an empty track would be crucial, but we could only hope — not plan — for it.

The Friday night before we opened production, I did last minute directorial things like double-check the blocking of a problematic scene, while my wife secured and organized all the snacks for the following day.

As expected, the next day, Saturday, was scorching hot. By the lunchtime, I had started taking my lead out to my car so that she could sit in the AC while it ran, parked, outside the set. Franny put a bowl of grapes and several boxes of water in the freezer, and in between takes we would basically feed frozen grapes to Leah and put an ice pack on her neck. While I set up shots, Franny would open the door and windows to try to get a cross-breeze. This latter step, while crucial, never seemed to help enough.

By mid-afternoon, as we contended with the heat and another actor who had not prepared for the last (and most important) scene we were supposed to shoot that day, we called it. We took a long break where everyone sucked on apple juice boxes for hydration and sugar, and once I saw the light and life return to my lead’s eyes, I asked her what she thought about making up the remaining apartment scenes the next day. She supported this, so I sent my sound mixer home while we stayed with the actors for another hour or so to work on the big argument scene.

After leaving the set, Franny, Leah, and I got margaritas in Alameda and re-blocked one of the scenes we had shot that day, which I was very unhappy with. We added that to the schedule for the next day.

The next morning we shot the trail running scene, and while my inexperience with a camera nearly scuttled the whole damn thing, the footage is surprisingly usable. (The first shot we filmed was in the shade, and I never re-set the white balance for the sunny shots. I had to do all sorts of less-than-ideal things to try to deal with the exposure.) We were able to get out of the hills before the heat got really bad.

After a siesta, we regrouped at the apartment location to re-shoot scene two and tackle the big argument scene between the lead and her boyfriend. My inexperience shot me in the foot again, as I noticed a continuity error in the big argument scene, meaning we had to re-shoot everything we had done before. We ended up with, at most, one usable take for most shots.

Between the re-shoots and, again, some preparedness concerns, I was really scrambling to get everything I needed. When you have a first-time director who is also a first-time camera operator, rushing is bad. When I reviewed the footage a few days after the shoot, I was so angry at myself for all my basic camera mistakes, like poor framing, soft focus, and really shaky pans and tilts. The thing that made me angriest, though, is that I had built a schedule that was supposed to give me plenty of time to concentrate on not making these mistakes while still really directing the actors. Because that’s the fun part, working with actors! But in the end I was rushing, unable to effectively direct, and the film suffered for it.

After all of this, it was time to tackle the track scene. I nearly exploded when I heard someone say, “Oh, we have another scene to shoot? I’m not ready for that one.” When this was, originally, the only scene we were going to shoot that day! We hopped in a car and I drove everyone to the track, while Franny stayed behind to clean up the apartment and put everything back where we had found it.

As we arrived at the track at 6:55, for a scene we were supposed to start shooting at 7 — because of sunlight, we could really only do it between 7 and 7:50pm — it became clear this track would not work. There were too many people, and with a fenced off infield there was no good place to do our work. I saw the terror in my lead’s eyes, and so we decided to try the other option, also in Berkeley. We dashed off this track, arriving around 7:15.

We were now really pushing our time limits, especially considering the fact that one of the actors was not prepared. Worst of all, this track was also full. Maybe even more so. This was shaping into a disaster.

I didn’t have time to direct, but thankfully my lead forced her co-star to run his lines while my sound mixer and I set up the shot. He seemed to have forgotten everything we talked about at the walk-through, and the footage is, frankly, not very good. But it would have been even worse if Leah hadn’t been a consummate pro, despite never having acted for film before. Hopefully my cousin, who is editing, can help us pull out something usable enough.

That was a wrap on the boyfriend character, and the actor informed us as we all gathered around a four-pack of apple juice boxes that he was moving to LA in like 36 hours.

We parted ways, me with a pretty bitter taste in my mouth about the whole thing. Just one scene left at this point, the next morning, back at the same track, with just the director (me), producer (Franny), sound mixer, and female lead.

The next morning, the track was shockingly full again — my bet that Labor Day weekend would mean fewer people on the tracks than usual was a complete failure — but we were able to get what we needed. By 8am, we called a wrap on She Runs. With a little left in the budget, the four of us from that scene made an impulsive trip to Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley and devoured pancakes, waffles, eggs, toast, coffee, and water. Oh, delicious, cool water.

Just like that, it was done. Now I have to finish organizing the files — with the chaos at the tracks, my sound mixer and I got all sorts of mixed up — and send them to my cousin Stephen. In the same way that I was using this project to learn how to direct and produce a film, he’s joined the team to learn how to edit a narrative film, as opposed to the interviews and commercial work he’s done before. By the end of the fall, who knows, maybe we’ll have something we can still all be proud of, despite the many challenges of the production itself.

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