ruminations on a series of unrelated events
October 9, 2018
Since March 2018, we have been producing our documentaries about the opioid crisis here in Indiana. These films, which I am continuing to write about in my Opioids in Indiana entry, are one part of a larger project. The other component are narrative films to be made down in Scott county, the site of a 2015 HIV outbreak and the first rural syringe exchange in the country. In fact, the narrative films were at the heart of the original project, while the inspiration for the documentaries came later. But we started making the docs first as a way to better understand the subject and to inform our narrative filmmaking.
Last spring and over the summer, my project partner, Kyle Minor, held a focus group in Scott county (big thanks to Kelly Dean and Lori Croasdell for making that happen) and spent time meeting various people there and simply observing. This resulted in three short, interconnected scripts that can tie together to form a feature length film or can stand alone on their own two feet.
We had hoped to start shooting the scripted films over the summer, and possibly even complete them. But after what seemed like interminable delays due to personal matters over the summer, we were suddenly confronted with making the narratives over the academic year as we also continued with our progress on the documentaries.
Finally in mid-September, we had to just stop kicking the can down the road and pick a start date. So it was decided Oct 5-7 would be our first weekend of shooting no matter what and we would somehow just figure out how to make it all happen. Making it happen entailed casting 4 actors, securing a location, and securing an oxygen tank. While that might not sound like a lot when written out in a single sentence, in reality that is no small feat for our tiny operation.
When I first imagined this project a couple of years ago, I pictured people from Scott county acting in the roles, helping crew the films, and in general embracing our efforts to tell a story based there as authentically as we possibly could. With a few exceptions, I can’t say that things have exactly worked out that way. At least not yet. But as naive as it might sound, there is still a long way to go and I am not giving up hope. I clearly understand people’s reluctance to embrace this. There is a certain part of the population that would just as soon move past the image Scott county acquired since 2015. They want to forget it happened and don’t want to call any more attention to it. While in general, I don’t agree with that way of dealing with issues, I can certainly understand that perspective. At the height of the outbreak in 2015, reporters were flooding in from around the world. I can appreciate how people got sick of that and felt that all the news in the media about Scott county was bad news and they just wanted it to end. The recovery community there probably sees things a little differently, but there is the added aspect of stigma. It would not take much to convince me that a certain degree of reluctance I perceive with the recovery community to get on board has to do with the fear of further stigma. And I completely get that as well. I can also see how people just wouldn’t understand what we are trying to do, and we can accept some level of responsibility for maybe not explaining it well enough or to enough people. It isn’t everyday a crew comes into a community and wants to try a participatory project that involves engaging a community in telling stories from their perspective, with their input. That is not the normal modus operandi of outsiders with expensive cameras. All that said, I am an optimist at heart and feel that eventually people will come to see what we are doing and want to become involved and help out.
All that is to explain why we unfortunately so far don’t have actors from the community. Casting is further complicated by the fact that we are 80 miles north of Austin and the logistics for such things are extremely hard.
Actors we needed for the first weekend of shooting were our lead, a mid-twenties male, his parents, and the grandfather, the father’s dying father. We resigned ourselves to finding people by placing ads on a local Indy acting website and also thinking of everyone we know. After a couple auditions with people not right for the lead, I asked a former student of mine who graduated in 2014 to play the part. Thankfully he agreed. He has never really acted before, but something just told me he would figure it out. So Daniel MacLean is playing the part of Derrick. For the father we had a great audition with Ray Graham out of West Lafayette. Ray came into our audition session and just really knocked it out of the park. His audition really made us feel inspired. But for the mother and grandfather we were still at a complete loss less than a week out from our shoot. We had auditioned a few women, but none of them were right for the part. Then suddenly we received a video audition. Three seconds into the video, I knew we found our mother actor. With something like three days to spare, we cast Mary Kay Riestenberg, who was going to drive down from Cincinnati to play the part. But we were still left trying to find a grandfather. We had no choice but to continue forward with our shooting plans in the hopes that we would figure something out in the meantime.
When Kyle, Hannah (a former student who worked with us her senior year and is now back on with us this year), and I went down to Scott county in early September to spend a weekend pre-producing the films and shooting some doc interviews, we were introduced to Mike Elkins at a local NA meeting we attended. In fact, Kyle had met Mike prior at the focus group he held and loosely based some of this first script on aspects of Mike’s experience. Mike was kind enough to agree to allowing us to shoot in his house. And in the subsequent few weeks since he agreed, he has proven to be very helpful. When were getting absolutely nowhere with getting our hands on an oxygen tank, Mike was actually able to secure one (check that one off the list). But most importantly, Mike really gets what we were trying to do and has been supportive and engaged as we worked our way through pre-production these past few weeks. AND, fingers crossed, it looks like Mike is onboard with playing a role in the film when we go down next time. That boost my hopes that he will be the first among others to come.
All this brings us to this past weekend. So we arrive at the hotel in Scottsburg on Friday afternoon. We still don’t have a grandfather. (Grandfather needs to look to be 80 or so, because Father is 64.) We ask the people at the front desk. They think of a couple of people who might be interested, or at least willing, and said they would call. We are literally gathered in the lobby and about to head over to Walmart to, I kid you not, ask complete strangers. Sadly, it has come to that. Our belief that all this would someone come together is actually coming down to us asking strangers, “Hey, you want to be in a movie?” Then Mary Kay arrives. When we tell her the situation, she mentions that she went off without some of her wardrobe and that she could have her husband come down, bring her clothes, and play the part. And just like that the problem was solved. Almost. It turns out her husband is the same age as the actor playing the father. So we made a long list of make-up to add to our craftservice shopping list at Walmart. And now all the parts were in place. Well, almost.
The scene we are shooting called for a news story to appear on the TV in the grandfather’s room. We still had to shoot that over in Scottsburg in front of the Sheriff’s building that night. Helping out on our shoot this weekend are Hannah and Devin, who have both been on the project for a long time, and Ed Kaikumba who started on the project this semester as an independent study. Ed has been concentrating his work for us on the docs, but was willing to come down for the shoot. I recruited Hannah and Ed to appear as the news reporters on the scene. We quickly and uneventfully shot that and then I edited it later that night back at the hotel.
Call time the next day at Mike’s was 8 AM. After a few initial indecisions regarding shooting sequence, we were up and running. A 12-hour day flew by in the blink of an eye. We had a ton of shots on the list as we wanted to get everything shot in that location in one day. We nearly got everything shot we had planned. But it became too dark to shoot a barbecuing scene during the late evening. It was looking like we were going to have to shoot it the following night, (I was feeling bad at the prospect of keeping the actors there until late in the day the following day). Then Mary Kay suggested shooting it early the next morning! Ding. Perfect idea. So the next day we had an early call back at Mike’s at 7:00 to be ready for a pre-dawn shoot. Luck was on our side and the weather was clear and despite an onslaught of mosquitoes we were able to get some beautiful shots.
After a brief return to the hotel to regroup and have a more leisurely breakfast we were back out to shoot one last indoor shot at Mikes and a few pick-up shots around town before heading back to Indy.
All in all a very productive (and exhausting) first weekend of shooting. With any luck we will have it shot before the end of October. Let’s see.
October 15, 2018
This past weekend was our second shoot. We elected to shoot two interior scenes that we could pull off in Indy. The first one is between Derrick and Father in the courthouse after they are left alone by Derrick’s public defender; a role played by our very own Kyle Minor. After what surprisingly proved to be an impossible mission to find a white male actor age 30-40, Kyle was recruited into the role. Last week, at the prospect of that happening, Kyle was very hesitant about his acting. Those concerns proved unfounded. Kyle suddenly became a method actor embarking on long improvised monologues, and in the process turning the character’s one line into a full blown 2 minutes of screen time. We will certainly have to trim that down substantially.
Ray and Daniel both really made the scene powerful. I was delighted with both of their performances and the look of the scene. It is going to cut together beautifully. We shot it in a tiny windowless room in our school. Hannah and I had searched through a few buildings on campus one night, but came up empty-handed. Then we were lucky enough to find this weird little space on the same floor as my office. So that made the trip to the shooting location about as short as possible. So it served our purposes quite well in multiple ways.
And thankfully I managed to find a prison uniform online and ordered it in time to get it and wash it before Daniel had to wear it. He said it was an odd sensation to wear it due to the fact that it was incredibly comfortable but it made him feel like a convict.
After that scene, we had to shoot a drug dealing scene where Derrick is enlisted to deliver a package. Coming up with this location was also proving elusive. A coworker was kind enough to agree to letting us shoot in his house in Garfield Park. The drug dealer character is a bit eccentric, (admittedly maybe a bit too much so for Scott County), and we wanted his house to be chaotic, with stuff everywhere and kids running around. Mike has pet rats so we even put them in the film.
The scene was to have a completely different energy and vibe from the previous scene we shot last week. While that one was very circumscribed, this one needed to be more loose and kinetic. In this scene the robe wearing drug dealer gives Derrick a box wrapped in Christmas paper to deliver to Seymour. And guess what happens. Toward the end of the day we started running out of light (window light), but I think I managed to fake it well enough. We will see just how well when we start to edit. I am eager to get going on that. I’ll post a few scenes here as they come together.
Oct 20, 2018
Kyle, Hannah, Devin, Daniel and I headed south early this morning for a day trip to Scott County to get two scenes shot. This week we had Mike (the very same Mike from the first entry) play the role of a recovery group veteran giving advice to newbie Derrick, and then another local guy named Brian played an old timer giving Derrick a ride to a recovery meeting. Technically, we had three scenes to shoot because we were having Ray come down in the afternoon for a scene that was literally one shot.
We knew we wanted to locate the first conversation in one of the alleys that runs off the Scottsburg square. Hannah and I got there first and scoped out a couple of them, and then after Mike arrived he mentioned one that had some old iron stairs. We checked that out and it was the best, with old metal stairs to a second floor, extremely old palettes stacked against the wall and some old appliances (because one of the buildings is an old appliance store). The morning shade was just right, but we knew it would be a rush because the alley runs north/south, so eventually the sun would flood the entire place. It was worth the risk to try to have it all shot before then.
The plan was to have the two characters sitting and talking on a makeshift bench against the wall. I brought a couple of buckets and a plank for that. This is Mike’s first time doing anything like this and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that he was a little nervous, or at least a bit unsure of himself. So we started by shooting Daniel’s direction, so Mike would have his back to the camera and have a chance to remember his lines and find his character before we did his reverse shot. Awkward would be a good word to describe the next several takes as Mike tried to remember what to say. Hysterical would be another good word. Mike was caught in the unfortunate in-between of needing to improvise and still trying to stay loyal to the script, and that makes for some funny moments. (laughing with him, not at him, of course.) You gotta go one way or the other. Once I took his script away, he no longer had a choice. After encouraging Mike to own the lines and to really just speak from his heart and his experience, he found his traction. Then it was time to move the camera to the other side and really turn up the pressure on Mike. The first take was pretty good, but the framing could have been better, so we did a second take and Mike just knocked it out the park. He killed it. We loved it, and we all knew we didn’t need another. Wow. Way to go Mike!!! Coming through in the clutch.
The rest of the time was spent racing against the sun to get additional coverage. When it came to the last shot we needed, we had to block as much light as possible and just wait until a suitable cloud blocked the sun long enough to get the shot. Thankfully, there was the occasional cloud. The last shot was a simple take of Derrick looking at his phone and then getting up and walking away. But the simple action, the soft light and the texture and color of the wall made for a really beautiful scene closer.
After lunch we headed over to Mike’s house. Ray had arrived and now we had to shoot him mowing his lawn as the public defender pays him a surprise visit to see if he would be willing to let Derrick move back in if he were released from jail. It is a scene that is literally one shot. In two takes it was done and Ray was free to make the 2 hour drive back to West Lafayette. (Thanks Ray for making the drive down just for that!)
Now it was time for Brian to play the old timer. So Brian, like Mike, was at the focus group Kyle held last summer and he was at an event we covered back in September for the docs we are making. So we sorta knew Brian, and the other night it occurred to me that he would be perfect for the part. Mike was able to track down his contact info and reached out to him to see if he would be interested and available to play the part. Thursday night Mike heard he was interested and by Friday morning he confirmed that he would be able to get off work. Nothing like securing cast members the night before! We were super excited to have him onboard. Brian has the kind of face a photographer loves. The kind of weathered face that has seen a lot of life and endured more than a fair share of hardships. So I was particularly excited about having him on camera. And I was excited that we would actually have, not one, but two local people participating in the film in one day- a 200% increase mind you. Things are looking up.
For Brain’s part he is driving Derrick to the recovery meeting and doing all the talking on the way. We shot the scene from the backseat. Brian drove around the neighborhood several times repeating his lines multiple times. It really is a matter of hoping to get all the lines when the sun is at a good angle and the camera isn’t shaking too much. And I’d like to think we managed to do that.
That was a wrap.
But after wrapping, we drove around and tried to find some locations for next week’s montage scene with Derrick and his new boss, the roofer. We secured the pizza place in Austin and we asked in at the True Value Hardware store in town. My fingers are crossed for the hardware store. They are supposed to get back to us this week. They won’t. We will just have to stop in.
For the roofer part I asked a colleague of mine, Todd Shelton to play the part. Thankfully he agreed. More on that next week. We are planning to go down on Saturday and shoot the film’s opening scene that takes place at the recovery meeting. And then on Sunday, Todd will join us and we will shoot all the roofer scenes in one day. Yes… that is the plan.
October 29, 2018
On Saturday, we shot some scenes at the Life Long Learning Center in Austin, and on Sunday we covered some major scenes between our protagonist, Derek, and the roofer who befriends him. We drove down in the afternoon on Saturday with our biggest crew yet to shoot three scenes that took place at a recovery meeting that afternoon. We arrived at the center at 3:30, just as the NA meeting held there was getting out. Several people at the meeting had agreed to participate in our shoot, something Mike Elkins had arranged for us during the week, (along with the use of the building.) Yet another shout out to Rainmaker Mike for making things happen. We are all super grateful for everyone’s willingness to participate in Saturday’s shoot.
Of course, filmmaking involves a lot of setting up and that takes a lot of time. This weekend, we brought a motion control rig and a slider so that we could get the camera moving, and that adds a whole other layer of time-consuming detail work. In the end it is worth it because it keeps the camera moving, but I get how people might grow a little tired of waiting around. Filmmaking feels like a lot of hurry up and wait. So in the end, I was happy with just how many people were patient and willing to stick around. I was also delighted that we had so many local people from the recovery community interested in participating. Like I have written before, this is what I have been hoping for, so it was great to see start to materialize.
The opening scene involves a handful of people from the recovery community telling brief stories from their own lives. These were not scripted, but rather actual testimonies about relationships their drug use affected and relationships they’ve managed to mend since finding their sobriety. The candidness was powerful, and I would love nothing more than to include each of these stories in their entirety. But they will be extracted and edited together into a jump-cut montage that will open the film and lead into our protagonist introducing his story before the film goes into a flashback to show it.
In this moment, at the center filming this scene, an interesting aspect of this project was brought into sharp relief to me. Our production was finally in a room full of the people we are trying to represent. While we are trying our best to represent these Scott county characters and stories to our fullest abilities, I know we are going to fall short. We just will. The business of representation itself, with the artificiality of staging scenes, with actors saying lines, and then trying to capture that performance with a certain degree of filmic sophistication (and no budget) is always going to have a level of compromise. If authenticity is the measure by which we evaluate, then we will never match the real world. And here is where the sharp relief became apparent. When real people, not actors, are relating their very real stories, there is a non-performative quality to that expression that comes from their grappling with their own experience, experiences with very real consequences for themselves and for those they know and love. This comes across in the way they search for the right words. When they do and do not make eye contact with those listening. When they stammer or pause in their search for genuine self-expression. At our level of talent and production, we can’t come close to emulating that. I don’t mean this as any slight to Daniel or our other actors in any way. They are doing the best they can. But they are performing lines that are not their own, relating experiences that are not their own and that seems to almost always have a performative quality to it. In fact, they would be exceedingly famous if they could do that in a way that was indistinguishable from the non-actors in the room. Daniel said to me that he sat there listening to all those real stories all night and how weird it felt for him to then perform his “fake” story for everyone. The relief will be apparent and I am not a good enough director to do much about it. Representation is indeed a weird thing. But authenticity is not the only measure by which we evaluate the success of a film. Despite our inevitable shortcomings in the authenticity department, did we still manage to tell a story with emotional resonance? Is the end result something that feels like it matters and is convincing through the conviction with which it was made? And is it faithful to its subject to the best of the filmmakers’ abilities. We will have to wait to see if this film will pass those tests. That is both the exciting thing and the terrifying thing about filmmaking.
In addition to the stories from the local recovery community, we had our newest actor Dave Cwi, make his debut for us playing a character named Gene. In this scene, Gene gives a lengthy monologue about this past and the road to his recovery. This is to set up the next film that features Gene as the lead character. Dave did a really great job. Brian, who we shot last week giving Derek a ride to this meeting, is the inspiration for Gene’s character and I am happy to report Brian gave Dave’s performance a hardy thumbs up.
We also shot the closing scene, which is a continuation of the opening scene, in which Derek speaks about his father. Dan did two takes of it and the second one really nailed it. Heck, I felt it and it isn’t even in the context of the film. That is a good sign.
Earlier on Saturday, it was becoming apparent that all our efforts to work with a local roofer to secure a scene location for the Derek/Roofer scene were proving futile. So, I remembered to ask at the recovery scene shoot if anyone there knew of a place where we could film on a roof the following morning. Laura Nowling came through for us by generously offering her house outside Austin. Thank you, Laura, otherwise I don’t know what we would have done.
Shortly after 9:00, we arrived at Laura’s property. Todd Shelton, my colleague in the School of Informatics and Computing, had agreed to play the role of the roofer and drove down from Indy that morning. Lucky for us he was able to come with tools and two ladders, so we quickly set to work shooting the 11 shots we needed there. Even though the morning was getting on, the sun wasn’t very high in the sky and some partial cloudiness created some nice light. But it wasn’t long before we were contending with some light rain and had to hold off a bit. Eventually, I think we got what we needed. The morning included a first for me: a cameo appearance playing the role of a case supervisor and dropping our protagonist off to work.
And big thanks to Kyle’s son, Dylan, for making Ukrainian Rice Krispy treats and sandwiches to use in the scene.
After that, it was time to run over to Marko’s Pizza in downtown Austin to shoot another scene between Roofer and Derek. We had made arrangements with the owner the previous week, but when we showed up a minute before opening time nobody was there. Luckily, the owner, Mark arrived on time. He didn’t recall our conversation from the previous week, but luckily for us, Mark seems to be extremely laid back and agreed on the spot to let us shoot our scene there.
A couple of hours and a few pizzas later, we had what we needed and now it was time to head down the block to the True Value hardware store to ask if we could shoot some shots there. I had asked permission the previous week and was hoping to hear back from the owner during the week, but I didn’t hear anything. Unfortunately, the owner wasn’t around and the guy in charge wasn’t quite as laid back as Mark and felt he couldn’t give us permission. So, it was off to Scottsburg to see if the Ace Hardware store there would be more agreeable. To our delight they were not only agreeable, but also very helpful. That is a pretty amazing hardware store and everywhere we looked we got new ideas for shots. It was so much fun. Big thanks to Jason Frank and Dan Miles of Scotts Ace hardware for helping out some no-budget filmmakers on the spur of the moment.
After that, Todd had to head back north and we spent the next hour shooting some b-roll around Austin before high winds started kicking up. Once again it was a tired and windy drive back to Indy. But once again we returned home with some great footage.
Jarred Johnson, who participated in the recovery meeting shoot and took a lot of photographs, has created a gallery of his shots on 500PX. Be sure to check it out. And see more pics on instagram at #scottcountystories.
Until next time.
Saturday, November 3rd
After an early morning shooting the Monumental Marathon for one of our opioid docs (see the latest entry to the Opioids in Indiana post), we headed over in the afternoon to the house of our roofer in Lapel. Todd made his place available to us for shooting some addition footage for the film’s montage. We had a beautiful day to do it. It was a simple shoot and we got to bust out an 8′ slider to do some nice camera moves.
The footage turned out really nice. I was dreading shooting the montage, but it has turned out the be way more fun than I had imagined. I think we got everything we need. Al There is one fly in the ointment. Ray, the father, is supposed to drive by and see Derek working with the roofer. Except the actor was unavailable this weekend. So we are going to have to find a sunny day extremely soon to shoot that shot so it will match.
December 15th, 2018
Production has been idle for a while as we try to plan and coordinate the next few shoots. We have a brief scene that takes place in a methadone clinic. For that shoot next week, we will be using the IUPUI testing center. It has a counter that seems pretty similar to a lot of the methadone clinics we are finding online. We will dress the set and hopefully wrangle enough extras to make it believable. The bigger challenge has been to try to find a jail where we can shoot the few jail scenes we have in the script. After numerous dead ends, it looks like we might have scored a yes in Madison county. This is thanks to our roofer, Todd Shelton, who happens to know a county detective there. Apparently, the sheriff has approved the idea, but I have yet to hear from anyone. My fingers are crossed that I will hear something this coming week. In the meantime, we are trying to figure out how to make fake badges to use with the deputy uniforms we will be renting for the deputy characters in the jail and for the arrest scene. (Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to the arrest scene before the weather changed.) Prop belts, holsters and guns is another thing all together and I currently have no idea how to solve that issue.
While the camera has been idle, Matt Tarr, our editor, has been anything but. He has been putting in a lot of time with the docs, getting them ready for the launch of the website. But he has also found time to edit a few of the narrative scenes, and I am happy to say it is cutting together quite well. I am extremely happy with what I have been seeing so far. Sadly, Matt’s time is limited. He has been working on the project as my undergraduate TA this semester. Bu he is graduating and we will be saying good bye to him way too soon. I can’t say enough about how awesome working with Matt has been. He has done a killer job not only keeping completely on top of all the post we have done, but also helping out on a lot of shoots. Big thumbs up for Matt.
Sunday April 24th, 2019
After a bit of a delay in our narrative work as we have been trying to advance two of our documentaries, we returned to shooting some of the remaining material for our first narrative film.
In an effort to slightly restructure and improve the film, we added a couple of scenes. We shot one of those today along with the scene in which our hero gets arrested. The scene we added has Derrick, after getting a “gift” from a friend to deliver in Seymour, (See Oct. 15th entry) leaving and getting in his car. I added this in order to do two things: have Derrick demonstrate his desperate need to immediately take the drugs his friend gave him as payment and then have Derrick in his car having a moment of reflection and doubt before leaving to make the delivery. I edited and added these shots immediately and felt they completely changed the whole feel of the scene and gave us a more nuanced understanding of Derrick. Nuance, such a good thing for films.
After getting those two shots in the rain, we drove over to an odd industrial road near the White River where we shot a colleague of mine, Zeb Wood, playing a deputy who pulls Derrick over and asks about the gift. It took quite a lot of effort to get the deputy outfit together; complete with a utility belt, Indiana Sheriffs patches, a prop gun, live ammo, pepper spray, and a prop radio, plus the 3D printed badge (written about above in a previous entry). Unfortunately, the badge had a tragic encounter with the ground moments before shooting and lost one of its tips. (I hope Zeb can fix that in post.) For all that work for the costume, it amounts to about 10 seconds of screen time. A very cool 10 seconds with Zeb sporting a Tom Selleck stache.