"ENGLISH GIRLS" BEHIND THE SCENES
The phone rings... it's Tim, the manager of The Maine. It's that time again, the boys need a new music video; we have to come up with something different and new. The challenge with frequent collaborators is to find an angle, a different plan of attack and retain enough honesty with yourself to call out the tired ideas and try for something fresh. I have to count how many videos we've done, this one completes one hand. The song is "English Girls", I feel somewhat obligated... and we're off.
The pre-production on these videos usually consist of a couple of phone calls between John (the lead singer) and I, for me to get a sense of what he's after and for us to talk about a creative direction. In the past, John's had a clear idea of a component that finds its way into the video, for example, for "Misery" the boys had recently left a major label and John spoke about the feeling of being trapped by decisions and uncertainties and so this sentiment materialized as a visual, living nightmare of having no control over your situation. This time around however, John has no idea of what the video would be based on, as it was simply a moment, a recollection, of an experience the boys had in London. So, we start with that.
Alright, so setting the video in an English pub is on the nose... but it feels right. The visual idea of seeing the boys in a situation where we're a fly on the wall seems new to me. I have this idea of seeing a single moment from many angles... I just don't know what the moment is yet. In fact, we've already chosen a shoot date, held gear, booked crew and we're getting closer and closer and I still haven't nailed in an idea. The band are asking me "So, it's just us in a pub?" and I'm keeping them happy, "Yeah, it's going to be brilliant!"... I have a couple of days left. Racking my brain, I decide to take a break and see that HBO Go has added Edge of Tomorrow, (which by the way is an incredibly underrated sci-fi, action, time-travel movie), I throw it on and lightning and Bill Murray strike at the same time...
I throw it on and lightning and Bill Murray strike at the same time... Did I type that already? Yeah, terrible joke... but you get my point. I have this idea of doing a groundhog day scenario-- a single moment with John in the pub. I pitch the band and they love it. We're on. I think it's a great idea for two reasons; creatively it will be fun to watch and production wise I'll be able to shoot one camera setup a bunch of ways and have all the alternate takes ready to conveyer belt edit and I'll be done in no time. Wrong. The phrase "Little did he know" comes to mind.
Let me say I've been obsessed with time travel movies and the whole subject of time travel in general, I've written time travel stories, outlined time travel features, had debates that lasted considerably way too much time and in general feel I'm pretty confident in that area. That being said, for some reason, I have the hardest time getting my head around shot-listing and scheduling this idea. Oh, I should also mention that on these lower budgets, I tend to AD and script-supervise myself and I'm pretty good at it, but this time I really have my work cut out for me.
First I come up with the objective - John gets the girl. Easy. Then I start coming up with all the ways I could stop that goal from happening. Easy. Then I whittle those down to obstacles I can actually shoot... so no Batman crashing through the window and fighting with Darth Vader. I draw out a little birds eye map and start to draw squiggly lines for each alternate timeline. Next, I group camera setups together... for example 'John drinks a shot'. Then I list the alternate versions of his state of mind needed within that setup... Sober, curious, amazed, drunk, hammered etc. etc. Once I have those, I list them in chronological order and rearrange for continuity, for example, I can't shoot the girl getting drinks spilt all over her until the end, but there are some moments where I will literally use the same shot, so only need one take... like the Jenga falling over.
I spend the whole day leading up to the shoot going over this master shot list to make sure I haven't missed anything. I also cut as much as possible to protect against running out of time to shoot... In order for a narrative like this to work, you can't miss a single shot. On little to no sleep, it's hard to balance all of this in your head. It's just as hard to try and explain yourself to a friend for them to check your logic. All I want at this point is to take a nap knowing that I have a 12 hour shoot ahead of me but I know it needs to be figured out. I'm on my own. I push on.
Also, to make things more fun, the British pub location will only let us load in at midnight... So I have to schedule the shot list in a way I'm only shooting toward the direction of the windows whilst it's still night outside. After a couple of attempts, I end up with this really fairly well structured list (pictured below) and a shoot schedule.
The last thing I include is the performance. A sci-fi vibe lit performance... that will save me if I have to cover up missed shots or hard transitions. It's also a great way to get the day going, the singer feels confident, the crew get to know each other's tempo and you know if all else fails, you still have a video in the can.
I arrive to the location nice and early and I see the Maine waiting for me. I'm always the first if not one of the first to set, though unlike any other artist I've ever worked with, these guys know how to show up up early it's truly impressive and quite frankly puts most other artists to shame; it is after all a video for the artist.
I'm exhausted before the shoot has even started, but of course call on every ounce of reserve energy to get the crew up to speed and in a good mood right away. We have a quick safety meeting about not breaking any of the Queen Victoria China hanging on the wall (I eat at this pub and want to be welcomed back) and I get the crew setting up the performance shot. I pull the actors aside and talk them through the story, giving great emphasis to specific moments for them to remember, gesturing to certain cast members as their moment happens. It's my hope that they'll be on the same page and be able to move quickly once the camera's up. We get John's performance shot. It goes swimmingly.
We set up the first shot of the narrative section. It's a closeup of John watching the TV, seeing the ref make a specific movement. This is the "Reset Shot", the one we keep coming back to when time loops over. In theory, I have to shoot this shot 5 ways... But John is not a trained actor, so we work to get his performance right... very quickly we're racking up the takes per version... The 1st AC holds up the slate, I see "TAKE 18" and hear him say quietly to someone else "Don't we have it yet?". I look at my shot list... we're only on alternate version number three of five. It suddenly dawns on me how fast time is moving and that I myself don't have the ability to reset time.
It's simple. Time is the enemy on set. You have to hustle to give yourself every chance of getting good material, not just making the day.
When you start out as a director, inevitably your first few shoots all go the same way- you take ages getting the first handful of shots perfect, taking your time, trying things out. By the end of the day you are RUSHING just to get one take of each shot you need for your edit. You quickly learn time management, how to move on and how to set a pace with your crew. You also make certain choices ahead of time to raise your odds of success, for example, choosing a handheld style means less time between setups. So here I am, on my first shot of the day, but seeing the shot list I know I'm already at that point, so I start to hustle. When you have a sense of efficiency about you, people move faster. No one wants to be the one to drop the ball.
As we move through the shoot day, I am changing the text colour in my shot list to green. Steadily, the shot list is getting more and more green. I leave the laptop screen open on purpose-- without me saying anything, the crew catch on and they pick up the pace even more as the end is in sight. The laptop becomes this pseudo Assistant Director... the crew are on point, no one's complaining and we've got a rhythm going.
We end the pub location with the one take deal shots-- smashing a few glasses on the floor and getting our lead girl covered in "beer". I remembered to bring towels, but I forgot to mention that detail to her until we're on set. So, thanks to our "English Girl" for being a good sport.
We wrap the location on time. I have every single shot I need, I didn't cut a thing for time. I make a mental note how well the green text visible to crew method worked and to do it again in future, we pack the truck and my splinter crew jump in a couple of cars for the last scene.
Heading over to the house location nearby, we shoot the epilogue for the story - the band had been asking me to shoot their drummer Pat in a certain way for a very long time. It made narrative sense so I finally caved. For the scene, the boys have to "act" like they had been up all night... we get it in a couple of takes.