writer, producer, director, editor
J.A. von Rekow: cinematographer
Jeff Granger: sound recordist
T.J. Raider: music composer, performer, producer
Erin Jankowski: location manager
Ken Zarnoch: SLOC liaison, lighting technician
Jay Pregent: continuity, stills photographer
Cheryl A. Alexander, Leslie S. Connor: assistant producers
Charles Galuski: re-recording supervisor
Daniel Weigand: production assistant
Michael F. Hayes: Ralph
Sandra Bauchiero: Meredith
David Bunce: Larry
April Marie: Susan
John Romeo: Quincy
Anna and Steven Connor, Joan Hayes,
Michael Hebler, Dan Masucci, Joe Masucci, Tim Merrill: thanks
Made on location at Schenectady Light Opera Company, Schenectady, New York
poster/DVD design by Peter Hanson with Dan Masucci
release history and awards
screening: Jan. 9, 2007, Julia Howard Bush Memorial Center,
Russell Sage College (Troy, New York)
DVD Release: May 1, 2007, via Grand River Films, available exclusively on this site
March 2, 2008, on Nano,
America's first short film channel (original
August 15, 2008 on international short-film exhibitor Mini Movie Channel (10-minute TV version)
Oct.23, 2008, Electric City Film Festival at Proctor's Theatre
(Schenectady, New York)
Winner: Honorable Mention, Open Fiction Category
behind the scenes
(Blog entry posted on Hollywood Periscope Aug. 8, 2006)
Picture a gaggle of sweaty Caucasians tunelessly humming "I've been looking for a boom shadow" to the tune of Cat Stevens' earthy '70s hit "Moonshadow," and you've envisioned the cheery tenor of the weekend I just spent making my first short film in 10 years. Starting at 8 a.m. sharp on Saturday, Aug. 5, a team of twelve focused actors and technicians earned my endless gratitude by working their sweat-drenched asses off for two long, productive days. Now removed from the intensity of production, I'm happy to report that after reviewing almost all of the 85 minutes of footage we captured for the short, which will run somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, it's clear everyone rose to the occasion and did exemplary work. I'm even pleased with my own performance as a producer/director, which is saying a great deal given my proclivity toward self-criticism.
First, naturally, the backstory. I made several student films during my NYU days, a disastrous indie short just afterward, and a few experimental videos while taking more classes at SUNY Albany. But my first real movie was the documentary "Every Pixel Tells A Story," broadcast on Albany, NY, PBS affiliate WMHT-TV in 2003. That project represented my wholehearted embrace of the digital-video format, and I've been itching to use the format for a fiction piece. Shortly after finishing "Pixel," I moved to California to focus on screenwriting, so filmmaking took a backseat to banging away at the computer keyboard. As 2005 progressed and I realized it had been two years since I shot a movie, I started playing with story ideas, one of which was "Stagehand."
The key player in the project is one Michael F. Hayes, a former U.S. Marshal who began acting after retiring from law enforcement. I became aware of Mike's work when I was an Albany-based arts reporter, because he gave potent, entertaining performances in several indie films produced in the Albany area. Mike and I became friends and we collaborated on a screenplay called "The Deputy." Though it's hardly the only facet of his skills, Mike excels at playing working-class types who reveal unexpected sensitivity, and that knowledge played into the formation of the idea for "Stagehand." The story is very simple, about a blue-collar worker who gets a chance to step into the spotlight. It's right in Mike's wheelhouse, so I first tossed him the idea as a potential feature. When I asked if it caught his fancy, I received an e-mail with giant capital letters asking "Are you shitting me?!!!"
Once I ran the numbers and determined that a feature wasn't possible at this juncture, I rethought the piece as a short and wrote a 13-page first draft, which flowed nicely and lent itself to small-scale production. Mike dug the piece, so I approached J.A. von Rekow, an Albany-area filmmaker with Hollywood-caliber cinematography skills. The parameters of the piece offered a relaxing change of pace from his usual projects, which generally involve every conceivable stripe of adversity. "One location. One weekend. No headaches," he wrote me. "That's my kind of shoot." Once I had J.A. behind the viewfinder of his trusty DV camera, I knew the piece would happen.
That was in January. Over the course of the next several months, I put together the rest of the team. New York State Theatre Institute actor/teachers David Bunce and John Romeo joined as, respectively, long-suffering director Larry and bitchy Broadway star Quincy. Singer/actress April Marie came on board to play sassy wannabe actress Susan. A late but welcome arrival was Sandra Bauchiero in the featured role of frightened thespian Meredith. Behind the camera, Jeff Granger assumed sound-recording duties and Erin Jankowski became location manager.
Pre-production had the usual indie-movie headaches: One actor who was involved early in the process dropped out because of a death in the family, David warned me he'd be on a cane during the shoot because of knee surgery, John said he could only shoot for one day because he was due in London the following evening, and finding a location whose owners were willing to give us the run of their place for no charge was a mighty challenge. I knew making the project in Albany was the right thing to do because of the team I had in place there and because of the resources I could get more inexpensively there than in L.A., but I don't recommend producing 3,000 miles away from your location. My face is still recovering from the breakout I experienced due to the combination of movie anxiety and East Coast humidity.
But all the angst proved worthwhile on Aug. 5 when I called "action" for the first shot, a dolly that opened on Sandy and then rolled over to include John in a tight two-shot. As soon as I looked through the monitor and saw how rich the Schenectady Light Opera Company's theater looked in the widescreen frame J.A. had composed, I knew something special might be brewing.
This being an indie production, naturally we did four takes of the dolly shot before determining that the stage floor was too uneven to accomplish the shot smoothly. First shot, first disaster. But I didn't care. The lighting was there, the performances were there, and my collaborators were focused on helping me make the best movie I could. I scrapped the dolly, cut the bit into two shots, and we got each of them in a handful of takes. After that, we were flying. We did nearly 40 setups on Saturday, and we still wrapped exactly on schedule, at 5 p.m.
That first day is a blur to me, because I was so focused on making sure the camera saw what it needed to see. So I look forward to hearing stories about the day from the other people in the room, if any of them can remember it through their heatstroke. SLOC, a nonprofit community theater, was extraordinarily generous in letting us use its pictorially interesting space, and I'm greatly indebted to SLOC board member Ken Zarnoch, who gave up his weekend to run lights for us and make sure those weird movie people didn't trash the place. But, man, shooting in Albany in August without air conditioning is a great way to lose weight. Every hour or so, we opened up the building and aimed some fans to draw outside air into the auditorium. As I've been reviewing the footage, it has consistently amazed me that my actors aren't drenched in perspiration.
Because of my myopic concentration on shots and performances, I caught only fleeting glimpses of memorable details. Whenever he pushed his dolly along the wood floor in front of the stage, J.A. slipped off his shoes and crept along in white socks. Each time an actor fed warm-up dialogue prior to a take of one of John's singles, John's eyes squinted tight as he slipped into Quincy's belligerent personality. David was a fountain of ideas and improvised bits, keeping me honest by checking my story points against the reality of the theatrical life and decorating his performance with sly comic details. During the shot of her character's entrance, in which Susan hums as she walks, I cautioned that April shouldn't use a copyrighted melody; easing right into Susan's bawdy persona, she said "It's my composition, honey. You can have it." Sandra contributed a great detail of her character nervously toying with the hem of her skirt while playing opposite the cranky Quincy.
My wife, Leslie, and her friend Cheryl A. Alexander took on craft-service chores, so they kept everyone supplied with coffee, muffins, and the all-purpose movie-shoot lunch of hot pizza. (Choice moment: Jeff, who had told me beforehand he was a vegetarian, opened the last pizza box and smiled at the gobs of unhealthy, greasy cheese. "When you tell people you're a vegetarian, they always think you want a salad on your pizza.") Jay Pregent, a movie-theater owner who volunteered to shoot promotional and continuity stills, was like a sprite throughout the production, forever appearing exactly where he was needed to move a piece of gear, hold a wire out of a shot, or catch a detail like April switching her purse from one shoulder to the other between shots.
Leslie toughed out quite a lot to see this movie get made, from putting up with my mercurial moods as production drew closer to skipping a good chunk of her hard-earned vacation to play jack-of-all-trades on set. As receipts piled up, Leslie joked that she should get a producer credit because of the money oozing from our bank account. I suggested she bill herself as "Direct Deposit Productions," and she's still getting mileage out of the line.
The second day got off to a brisk start, when J.A. and I picked up some David singles we missed the previous day, and then I ran into my biggest production kerfuffle. Succumbing to inevitable directorial hubris, I designed a tricky dolly shot opening on Mike and David, then tracking over to focus on April and David. Because we had to tighten the frame to exclude a background detail that would have caused a continuity problem, the shot became virtually impossible to achieve. As we rolled through the fourth take of the shot, which looked stunning but just wasn't working, I felt lost for the only time during the production.
Watching the whole team wait on my decision of how to handle the situation, I realized the heat was getting to me, so I called a break and opened up the building. I sat alone in the theater while everyone else caught some air and a snack, then ran over my obsessively prepared shot lists and storyboards so many times that I felt like I was reading a foreign language. Figuring out alterations to screen direction like those necessitated by this change is a lot like doing math, and let's just say the English score on my SAT could beat the crap out of my math score on the test.
I redesigned the angle as a wide three-shot, which looked fantastic because it utilized the room lights to create hot backlight, and we slipped back into a good groove. But the schedule for the day was shot, if only by a little, and our projected 2 p.m. wrap turned into 4 p.m. But those last few hours on Sunday were probably my favorite parts of the production, because we were into the meat of Mike's performance. I was thrilled with what everybody was doing, but the shooting schedule was designed to progress toward Mike's big moments so he could build up a head of steam.
As the first take of Mike's key angle approached, I felt looser and better than I had all weekend. When we finished a strong take of a shot with lots of David dialogue, David said he wanted to try it one more time. I told the room that "Mister Nicholson would like another," and that got a laugh. Later, when a scene required David to ascend several stairs, I asked Jay's friend Dan to stand in during camera run-throughs since David's knee was in rough shape from surgery. Once we were ready, I dug into my limited repertoire of Hollywood lingo and said "Let's have doubles back to holding and 'A' team into first position." Another laugh, another moment where I felt like I was right where I belonged.
Finally we came around for Mike's climactic shot, a tight single over April's shoulder that turns into a clean closeup when he stands. I asked Mike to go with his first instinct on take one, and he went big. It was strong, but I knew he could take it someplace else. You see, I'd cowritten a feature called "The Last Round," in which I catered two monologues for Mike's character to his special skills. So I eased Mike through a few more takes, and on the last one, we struck gold. He trailed off right where he was supposed to, but not because of the ellipsis in the script. He found the moment. The camera caught something vivid, real, and human. I waited a long moment before calling "cut," then made sure J.A. and Jeff had gotten the piece. They had, so I walked over and asked if Mike was satisfied. He couldn't speak.
A few instants later, he exhaled sharply and came back from wherever the take had sent him. "I didn't know it was there, but you got it outta me," Mike said. "From now on you have to write everything I do." I don't mention his remarks out of self-aggrandizement, but rather to tell everyone involved in the picture that I think we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.
There were other highlights to come, like the capturing of a single magical image that will appear as the film's penultimate shot, but after we got Mike's performance in the can, we were home free. Now comes the hard part. I'll spend the next couple of months putting the film together and hoping I was organized enough to get everything I needed during production. And then, sooner than I probably expect, it will be time to put "Stagehand" out into the world and see if anyone who wasn't there agrees we did our jobs right.
A Mad Enterprise
It's always strange to surface from the frenzy of production and realize that what's been created is ultimately just a piece of entertainment; two days of my collaborators' lives, and several months of mine, will turn into 10 or 15 minutes in front of a TV or a computer. It's a mad enterprise, really, and the axiom that you have to be crazy to make movies never seems more true than just after you've made one. But I'm sure glad to be back in the thick of things, and if that makes me loony, it's not as if no one has noticed.
At one point on Saturday, I offered a particularly convoluted suggestion to John, and I'm sure his extensive experience is the only reason he was able to parse my meaning. Realizing that I was being vague, I said "Sorry I'm not making sense." He nodded, and then as I turned away he joked "I haven't met a director yet who does." So sing it with me now, as you picture yourself scanning the Schenectady Light Opera Company stage for a rogue indication that a microphone has swept overhead. "I've been looking for a boom shadow." Call it crazy, call it wonderful, call it filmmaking. Just count me in.