During the One-Year anniversary of principal photography, I decided that I would write a kind of director's journal reflecting on the experience of making my first feature. I had planned to write about each day on set, from my perspective, and share each post on our blog, on its pertaining day's anniversary. But I ended up writing more than I expected and sharing more about how I felt than I originally intended. It turned out to be quite a cathartic experience. So, I decided that I would instead share it as one concise story. But I ended up waiting another year, unsure of how I wanted to get it out there (and whether or not I really wanted to put it out there). However, after finally deciding to just do it, here I am now releasing it as originally intended (as 15 separate posts), but during the Two-Year anniversary of production. I hope that this will be helpful to other no-budget filmmakers making their first features (learn from my mistakes!), and maybe act as a “you're not alone” piece for other filmmakers who have first feature 'horror stories' of their own. I also hope it offers an interesting look behind the scenes for fans anticipating the film and all the people that first supported us when we began pre-production and crowdfunded the film in 2012.
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January 18, 2013
One year ago today, I was up at 4am, getting ready for my trip to Lenox, MA where I'd begin production of my first feature film, Summit. I spent much of the night before tossing and turning in bed, obsessively rechecking checklists in my head. But in spite of the lack of sleep, I felt energized. I was motivated and ready for a project that had been over a year in the making. Andrew, one of my best friends, convened at my apartment to pack up the car that had come to be known as the Summit-mobile. Andrew's not a filmmaker, nor is he aspiring to work in the industry. However, he's very handy and a great friend (as well as driver). He had worked on some of my film shoots before, and then committed to taking 2 weeks off of work to be a PA and driver for Summit. For that, among other things, I am very grateful.
He and I hit the road at 6am, and picked up Erin, our 2nd AC, and Colin, our sound guy. The Summit-mobile was packed so ridiculously full that the trunk was up to the brim with equipment, luggage, and food (including delicious home-cooked dinners from my mom for the first week of production). The ride up, though cramped, was fun. We talked and joked. About halfway through, I began going over the schedules and shot-lists for the upcoming days. The 3 weeks prior had been insanely stressful. We lost our location at the start of January and I had made 7 trips to Massachusetts in search of a replacement. It all came together in the end (more on that in this blog post), but I was definitely feeling uneasy about what could go wrong next. I suppose the biggest stress inducer was the snow. I had written this script and chosen to direct this film that was 100% dependent on there being snow on the ground. If it had been even 3 years ago, I could have banked on there being a ton of snow near the Berkshires. However, with how unpredictable the weather had been, I knew I was taking a big gamble. Ideally there'd be a lot of snow in the film; I mean, part of my motif was paying homage to The Thing. But I'd settled on the fact that I wasn't going to get that kind of snow without the budget to fake it or take my cast and crew much further north. So we were on our 3 1/2 hour drive to the Berkshires and I was crossing my fingers that we'd at least have white on the ground for all exterior shooting days. I had a snow machine on hold at a nearby factory, should worse come to worst, but I knew that it'd take days to fill the kind of land I needed in snow. In hindsight, I can see how that machine simply couldn't have covered the kind of distances we ended up getting, but it was my plan B. I needed a plan B so that I could say I had one, and so I could convince everyone that I had gotten to take this gamble, myself included, that there was a backup plan should we need one. However, in the back of my mind I knew that plan A had to work or the whole production would be a bust.
Driving up to the house, I felt nervous; but more powerful than that was a feeling of excitement. I had spent over a year in pre-production for this film and it was finally happening. All the pieces had come together, despite a series of mishaps. I just knew in my gut that we would have the makings of a complete film by February 2nd. But I couldn't shake the worry that things wouldn't go as planned because, well, does film production ever go as planned?
While driving up the Taconic parkway, situated between the Hudson River and Connecticut, a cop suddenly pulled up along the driver's window and motioned us to pull over. As he approached the car, he said he had been behind us for a few minutes, but we had the back "so packed up,” we couldn't even see him. Andrew had been going 70 mph; the Taconic is a 55 mph zone. The cop asked what we were doing "with all that stuff in the car." I didn't want to say we were shooting a film because... then Andrew beat me to it. He said "A movie." The cop asked, "What?" Andrew said, "We're making a movie." The cop seemed confused, but slightly less annoyed than before. I said, "We're film students from New York City, on our way to Massachusetts to shoot a movie." The film student spiel always softens the blow when doing things without permits. It’s my involuntary go-to. He dropped his attitude after that and took Andrew's license. When he came back, he was friendly. He gave Andrew a ticket, but said to plead not guilty and he wouldn't show up in court to contest it. That cop’s kindness, I think, gave me some reassurance that maybe things would all work out in the end, even if a bunch of unpredictable mishaps did happen. (Of course, cut to 3 months later, in fantastic police officer fashion, that cop ended up appearing in court - thanks guy.)
When we arrived, we unpacked the car and settled into our arranged rooms. The 4 bedroom, 1 living room house was being re-purposed to house 20 people for the next 10 days. Matt, the U-haul truck with all our equipment, and the rest of the crew showed up shortly after. The 5 cast members were coming later that evening. The two big projects for the day were to get the exterior of our vacation house looking like a creepy abandoned house (part 1 of the solution to losing our picture house 3 weeks earlier), and to build our process trailer. About 15 minutes of Summit takes place in the car. I disliked the idea of having my actors act and drive at the same time, along with the idea of them having to interact with a character that isn't really there in order for John, my DP, to sit in their car seat for the reverse shots. John didn't like the thought of this aesthetically either, so he pitched the idea that we build a poor man's process trailer.
I loved the idea, except for the danger of driving up dark, icy roads, in the middle of the woods, with John standing on nothing but some 2x4's on the side of the car with a $16,000 camera. But he insisted and assured me that he was completely up for the craziness of pulling this off, assuming Adnan, our Key Grip, could ensure that he'd make it stable. Adnan came up with the idea of using metal piping to reinforce the bottom, including the addition of a security strap for John. Thinking back, this was incredibly dangerous, and not something I would risk doing again, but not gonna lie, in the end I’m glad we did it. (Of course I can only securely say that because it all worked out okay. I would not recommend you try this.)
The building of the process trailer took longer than expected, particularly because the U-haul and its passengers were a little late getting there in the morning; which is to be expected when a 10-foot truck needs to be driven through Manhattan. I wanted to start rolling first thing the following morning, but the need to finish the trailer was going to eat into the day. So, I decided we'd push back and roll in the afternoon. We’d get as much of the daylight scene done as possible, then jump right into the night driving scenes.
That night, I didn't sleep a wink; I was too anxious. I always have a hard time sleeping in new places. On top of that, I was in a sleeping bag, in a room with 3 other people, so I can say with confidence that I probably wouldn't have slept anyway. The morning would bring the first day of production of my first feature film, and looking back, I really had no idea what to expect, except the unexpected...