Shooting Summit - Day 3

<- Start from the beginning.

January 20/21, 2013

We all woke up early, repeated the process of getting the trailer ready and headed out to the roads we had been on the night before. This time it was daylight and there were cars on the road. Cops knew we were shooting in the area, but not with a DIY process trailer. How we didn't get pulled over, I do not know. Spirits were high. 

The cast and I were admittedly very happy that we got to roll from the first scene instead of jumping forward the night before. However, the reality of losing a whole day of shooting was something that would soon sink in. The thing is, the flatbed we rented from U-haul was from Vermont. We had checked in with local U-Haul's near Pittsfield, MA and reserved the flatbed we needed, but when we arrived on location, they all randomly decided to be closed that weekend. No notice on their website or anything. The closest one open that had the flatbed was a few hours away in Vermont. So, we had to send someone out to go pick it up, in addition to exchanging our 10-foot truck for a 14-footer (the gas for driving to and from Vermont was an unforeseen expense) and they needed to be back by 10am on the morning of the 21st or we'd be charged for an extra 2 days. So what was supposed to be two full days of shooting with 7 hours of sleep in between, needed to be pulled off in almost 30 hours, with no real sleep time. Everyone was aware of this going into the day, but I know no one expected it would be as brutal as it was.

I should probably mention at this point that it was freezing, It was around 20 degrees out during the day and we had to turn the heat off in the car for sound recording. It was bearable, though, because we were working. We were rolling, finally. It was going well. The shots were looking great; the actors' performances were perfectly on point. We got a lot done. I was excited. 

All Stills are from raw footage we shot each day.

We had one situation during the day where a guy was following us with his car. When Matt and I approached him, he admitted that he thought we were trying to rob the isolated houses. I thought that was an odd assumption since we'd have to be the least inconspicuous thieves in the world, but I imagine seeing a no-budget film crew shooting a movie around your neighborhood isn't something you encounter everyday in Canaan, NY. He left us alone after we explained ourselves. Outside of that incident, the day went off without a hitch. It was long and cold, but productive and, dare I say, fun.

It was then that we started to lose light, and there were three daylight shots left to do that were absolutely imperative. There were also two more artistic ones that I could sacrifice, but didn't want to. We decided to jump into the night scenes and see what time we wrapped them. We'd come back just in time for the three shots, and the flatbed could be on its way back to Vermont by 7am.

The night stuff didn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped. We were getting the shots we needed. Just like the morning, the shots looked phenomenal and the performances were amazing. The problem was the set up time for shots was staggeringly long, especially in the conditions we were dealing with. We were surrounded by pitch-blackness outside of our own lights. It had dropped to -10 degrees and the wind burned our faces. It snowed on-and-off throughout the night, so heavily at times that we had to stop moving for John's sake. I cannot commend John enough for being the superman that he was on that platform in the weather; and I cannot thank him enough for being so committed to the project and sticking that night out because it was absolutely ridiculous how much everyone had to push themselves to get through it, particularly the camera/lighting crew. Peter, Erin, Charlotte and Adnan had to lug lights around, and set and reset lights over and over in that cold. I was grateful and impressed, and terrified that they’d walk away from the project at any moment.

During new lighting set ups, we'd send the cast to one of the heated cars, and while we were rolling, the crew was usually in heated cars. Kelsey, John and I, on the other hand, were in the cold the whole time. When the heat was off and new lighting was being set, Kelsey and I would sit in the frigid trunk. It was incredibly uncomfortable having to squeeze back there with the both of us lying flat, ensuring the camera didn’t catch us in the front. At least during breaks we could sit up straight. I'd be running over the shot list and checking in with Matt about progress. Kelsey stood by me in the cold, even at times when she could've gone to a heated car. She and I had already been friends for over 2 years at that point, but I think a special bond was created shooting Summit (which would add to our future creative partnership). She kept me sane in some ways because she laughed with me when there was nothing we could do but laugh or cry over what we were dealing with. More importantly, she was someone I could lean on a little, someone who didn't have a particularly stressful job on set, allowing me to vent to her when it was all getting to me. Leaning on people is something I'm not good at. I'm used to people leaning on me. But she was great at being that person for me, and I don't think I would've survived without her in the 20 minute set ups in the car when we just had to sit and wait in the still cold. One of my favorite stories from production is when we both stepped out of the trunk to stretch our legs. We attempted to get our blood flowing because we felt like our toes would literally freeze if we didn't, but the wind was so bitter outside that we had to get back in. We both crawled into the trunk and found ourselves saying, "Okay. Okay. Okay," over and over again through deep breaths; a kind of reassurance. What's funny about this is that we didn't realize we were both doing it until we had been doing it for over a minute straight. It made us laugh. We needed that. 


When I say a U-haul truck eats gas, I really mean it, especially when it's towing an SUV, atop a metal flatbed, with lights all over it, going against brutal winds and bearing the weight of 8 people inside. Now, I had of course budgeted for gas, but not this kind of gas. The 30 hours we spent doing driving scenes really ate away our budget, as well as our shooting time. Maybe the only good thing about having to stop and go get gas every couple hours was that everyone got to take little cat naps, though not everyone napped (including me, of course.) I was mostly concerned with John getting rest, and luckily he was the type of person who could fall asleep easily. I’m the type of person who takes a long time to fall asleep; and I’m actually much better running on no sleep than just 30 minutes of it here and there.

The first big hitch in the night was when we were going up a winding hill, and Andrew didn’t want to push our luck trying to get up and produce a repeat of the night before. So, it needed to be backed down the hill, which luckily was not nearly as steep as the previous evening. Colin, popping in as the jack of all trades he definitely ended up being on set, revealed to us that he drove a tour bus for awhile a couple years back and could back the process trailer up with some guidance. It was a slow, slightly painful process, but he pulled it off. Crisis averted. We managed to do circles and avoid that hill, as well as any others, for the rest of the night. 

The other big problem of the night came as our clocks crept past 2am and we still had two shots remaining. We were waiting on more gas to come back for the truck, and John was taking a nap in one of the cars. I was in a car with Matt trying to figure out what would be the best way to get the shots. The option that made the most sense was to push forward and get the last few shots completed, and then let everyone take an hour nap in the cars. Then we’d get the 3 daylight shots and quickly after let the cast go home and sleep. Matt didn't think we could push them and wanted to just call it a night. I didn't see how we could possibly do that and have a finished film in the end. We had already cut out all the coverage except for what was absolutely necessary, and we had been told by John 3 days before production that he had a paying gig that he had to fly out to the day before what was planned to be the last day of production (he had miscalculated). So, going over-schedule was not an option. If we didn't get the scenes done by 7am tomorrow morning, we'd not only run the budget over more than we could handle, but we'd also lose another day of shooting that I didn't think we could get back. So Matt asked me what I wanted to do. I told him to go talk to the cast (and crew) and present these two options to them but make the consequences of the latter clear; then see what they say. It was an ask-them-what-they-want-to-do-but-really-tell-them-what-the-plan-is kind of move. It had to be.  

At this very moment, Rob, one of my actors, came storming over and opened the door. He started venting frustration about the situation at hand, clearly fed up with the fact that we were all sitting in separate cars and no cameras were rolling. In a fit of delirium, no doubt from the lack of sleep over almost 24 hours, he shouted, “I’m not shooting anything else,” and marched off into the woods with no apparent destination. It then just occurred to me that Matt and I were so busy problem solving that no one had updated the cast on why we were waiting (though we had assumed they were napping.) Lauren, also one of the actors, was in the car during my chat with Matt. She has since gone on to become one of my closest friends, but at the time we had a much more clearly defined director/actor relationship. She was all for pushing forward and finishing what was required in order to make the movie work. Her enthusiasm and commitment were definitely helpful in giving me what I needed to make the calls I did that night. If I felt like I was abusing my power or taking advantage, I don't think I would've pushed everyone to keep going; but it was an impossible situation. We had to keep going, we just had to, but first we needed to find Rob. Matt ventured into the woods to locate him and managed to get him refocused. Matt's good at that. I'm not great at diffusing situations; my ego sometimes gets in the way. It's why I'm not an AD, I suppose. The next day, Rob thanked Matt for reining him in. (I must say, of course, having gone through this experience and knowing better now, I can tell you that better planning would've avoided this entire situation & I'll never allow myself to have to make calls like this again.)


Matt then pitched the plan to the others. Ryan was onboard, as was Ricardo. To speak about Ricardo for a second, I just have to say how grateful I am to him for being such a good sport. One of the first things he said to me, when I cast him and asked what he usually wears when it snows, was “I don’t go in the snow.” He was not looking forward to the cold, but he ended up being the guy that really kept spirits high on set. He entertained everyone, especially John, with his impressions and singing (his Reggae song “Got stuck in a ditch last night, but Summit-movie gonna be all right” was a big hit). He just rolled with whatever came at us, never complained, just said, “You got it boss, whatever you need.” I love all my cast members, but I just wanted to give him a shout-out right here because I think there’s a good chance John would have quit on me at some point if he didn’t find Ricardo so entertaining. Lauren even told me after the fact that she maybe would have gone crazy if not for him. 

Back to the story, Lauren, Rob, Ryan and Ricardo were all onboard to keep going. Emma was a hold out, but Matt managed to convince her. So, we kept going, but it was hard on everyone. We ended up with just under an hour between the night scenes and the following day scenes. So we sat in the cars and waited. Almost everyone slept. I did not. As soon as we had light, we got rolling. 

We got the three shots, but had no time for my two more creative shots. One of those, a mirror shot that hinted at some of the subtext of the film, I'll always miss a little every time I watch the film. Matt got us wrapped and then had everyone quickly break down the process trailer. He got the flatbed on the road at 7am on the dot, and I sent the cast home to sleep. 

Now that it's been a year since that day and the film is cut, I can say that I made the right call that night (only considering the circumstances). The scene just would not have worked without those shots, and the entire experience and what we put ourselves through that night would have been pointless. I do miss the two shots that I could've had, but those are the things I suppose directors will always feel about their work, especially when made with no budget. The 26 hours that it took to shoot those 15 minutes of the film were brutal, but they resulted in some amazing content; content that I'm really proud of, and I believe everyone involved will be proud of as well.

So here's the kicker, we weren't done shooting for the day.

Shooting Summit - Day 2

<- Start from the beginning.

January 19, 2013

On day 2, we all got up early to finish the process trailer and get ready for the day. I sat in the kitchen with the cast over breakfast running lines and giving notes. I also checked in constantly on the progress of the trailer. The hours ticked away. Finally, by around 5pm, it was ready, but we had lost the opportunity to start with daylight scenes. A part of why I wanted to shoot the driving scenes first was because they'd be the hardest to get through and clearly the most risky. I felt that if we got through that part, the rest of production would be easier. I can't say that I ended up being wrong because the phrase "we got through the driving scenes, we can get through this" definitely ended up being a saying on set. (However, the built up stress of these scenes at the start of production kind of laid a foundation that we took with us through the rest of production.) The more prominent reason I wanted to start with driving, however, was because I was determined to shoot the film in order as much as possible. The characters go through an emotional transition in the film, and I really wanted to method-direct as much as possible knowing that the living conditions of the next 2 weeks would take its toll on them. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted just how bad it would be for all of us.

Having lost the light, I couldn't start with the opening scene of the film in the car, but I could still start with the subsequent scene(s) that took place at night. I decided we'd take the 15-minute drive over to the back roads we had scouted a month earlier and roll until 11pm. We’d then head back out at 6am for the daylight scenes. Having already lost half of the day, we couldn't afford to lose the night as well. Andrew, Matt and John got in the front of the U-haul, while the cast got in their seats inside the picture car (Summit-mobile) while Kelsey, my script supervisor for this shoot, and I got in the trunk. This is where we would take refuge with a 7 inch monitor for viewing as we drove from Lenox, MA to Canaan, NY with a car driving on either side of us for safety. 

We arrived at the back roads and set up the platform for the process trailer. The camera crew set up the camera and John got up on his platform to start rolling. I wanted to find a nice, easy drive with minimal winding. In order to do that, we had to drive for a little bit longer. I noticed we were going uphill and that the U-haul very quickly started to struggle as it went up steeper. I had a feeling that we shouldn't keep trying to get up the hill and wanted to relay that feeling but, of course, my walkie talkie wasn't working properly (all the walkie talkies stopped working after day 3). Suddenly, we stopped moving and I heard the sound of tires struggling to find traction on ice. Then came the smell of burning rubber. Matt came around the back of the car and lifted the trunk. He told me we were stuck. No shit.

We all had to get out. John took the camera into one of the nearby cars. Matt said that he was going to guide Andrew to try and turn around because there was someone's driveway back there. I didn't really see how we could turn around on such a narrow road even with a driveway because of how long we were, a 14-foot U-haul and a flatbed with the Summit-mobile on it. I said we should try to back it up, but Matt wanted to try his plan. He didn't think it'd be safe to try backing up because the narrow road curved. So, they attempted to turn around. As they got the U-haul itself on an angle, they encountered the problem that seemed glaringly obvious to me, they had to whip the flatbed with my car on it around to the other side in order to actually drive the car down the road. Unfortunately, there was no flat land on either side of them to do this. We admitted defeat, but our backup plan to call for help would also fail. My production manager called triple A. They said we were too big. U-haul said they couldn't help us. No local tow trucks were available, and the people whose driveway we used pretty much said, "Yeah, you guys are screwed," but in a really nice way. People are so nice up there.

About 40 minutes go by. I'm stressing. Matt is freaking out. He's telling me that there's a ditch on either side of the road and that the only bit of pavement they had to work with was the driveway. The process trailer had a ditch that led to tree filled woods in front of it and a ditch that led to someone's house in back of it, and it was sitting at a 90 degree angle between them with no way to cut to the left and take the whole thing back down the hill. Matt, Andrew, Colin and two of my actors, Ricardo and Rob, were up on the hill all brainstorming together. Matt was instructing Andrew to pull the U-haul forward to the left a little, then back it up and repeat, but he was essentially just rocking it back and forth in place. There was no way they'd get enough space to pull the whole back end around the bend. My production manager comes over and tells me that she thinks if we unhook the flatbed from the U-haul, the angle isn't steep enough that it'll just roll back into the ditch. She thinks it’ll just stay in place. If this were true, they'd be able to slowly make enough progress with the “a little to the left forward, a little to the right back” method and pull the U-haul around. Then once around, hook the flatbed back up. I skeptically said, "You think?" And she said, "It's your call. I think it'll work. But yeah, your car might fall into the ditch." I had to make this decision. I, who had never been in a situation like this before, who had never even owned a car before and never would have invested in one if it wasn't needed for the film, who had only gotten my license 5 months earlier just to buy the car for the film, had to decide what was the right call here. So I said, "Okay, what else are we going to do. It's been over an hour and I don't see any other option. Do it." Matt came over and reassured me that it would work, though he didn't seem so sure. My production manager said maybe I should go back to the house so that I wouldn't have to see my car roll back into a ditch if it happened. I didn't want to leave, but she convinced me. A car had already taken John, the rest of the camera crew and 3 actors back. 

Jesse, our PA, drove me back to the house. I was told over the phone, shortly after leaving, that they had unhooked the flatbed and it did not roll back into the ditch, a small victory. John and the camera crew went to bed with plans to wake up bright and early for shooting, but I stayed up with a few others to wait for the situation to be resolved. With Colin driving, Matt and Andrew coaching, and Ricardo and Rob pushing and pulling, the U-haul truck managed to turn around after an hour or so. When I got the call, I was so relieved. When they all returned to the house, they were met with a round of applause, from the few of us who were still up. It was a moment of triumph. We hadn't shot a single frame, but we accomplished this. It was ridiculous that we even had to deal with it to begin with, but it was our one thing that we could be proud of thus far. We had to see the silver lining. We had learned a lesson, hopefully early enough that we could still catch up with the shooting schedule.

Did I sleep that night? Of course not.

Shooting Summit - Day 1


Writer, Director and Producer Christina Raia reflects on the experience of making her first feature film.



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.

- - -

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...