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Making of: Spy Games (Production)

November 20, 2009

Welcome back you loyal checkers-of-my-blog you. The SPY GAMES series was delayed by a laptop theft combined with my gaining full-time employment, so not being able to write on the go and not having the energy to write by the time I’ve fought traffic home. (Excuses, excuses.) But my shiny replacement laptop has arrived and I’m ready to kick this pig.[1]

When last we left the process, the script was written and the storyboards had been drawn by me and fixed by Brian. We finished this up at about 5 AM, with a call-time at the location of 7AM. So with nothing to do but kill an hour, we snuck in about 45 minutes of sleep.

Before the weekend began, we had determined that we were going to do this project on the RED. Why buy the camera if we’re not going to use it? We knew that the workflow was a little janky (which I’ll address more in the post-production post) but we felt it was worth trying. After all, if we couldn’t finish, it wouldn’t be a huge deal. And if we could, it would be one of the best-looking entries in the competition.

At the same time, we didn’t want to spend money on extra equipment just for a 48-hour film, so we didn’t rent a mattebox or ND filters. This meant that the exterior shooting (which, as of the script stage, was meant to be “daytime”) needed to be shot in the very small window between dawn and sunrise — before dawn, it would be too dark to shoot; after the sun broke the horizon, even with the RED’s significant dynamic range the image would become unpleasantly contrasty and harsh. So we had an early day.

I don’t want to get into dirty laundry or pointing fingers, but suffice it to say the day had some unfortunate drama that delayed our progress. Our resource for the child who was supposed to sit in the chair backed out, having thought about it and become uncomfortable having a gun pointed at their child, even if it was only simulated (we offered to splitscreen the shot and everything). This was understandable, but inconvenient. We started casting about for someone with a child who would be comfortable with the situation. Meanwhile we shot whatever else we could get at the location.

Finally we got a young child for the role, whose father gave us the go-ahead with the shoot. We shot it, had it in the can, and then just as we were pulling out a company move from the office building to the house where the bedroom and kitchen scenes were shot, we got word that the kid’s mother had just found out was was going on and was…not cool with it, let’s say. We started negotiating ways to salvage the footage (edit it so the kid and the gun were never onscreen at the same time, etc.).

At this point, Anthony pulled me aside and expressed discomfort with the scene. Having had these issues calling his attention to the scene, he realized that he had done a similar thing in his short film Animus, in which he also starred and also shot a toddler. He didn’t want to become associated with that kind of role by doing two in a row.

I’m streamlining this for the sake of the post but understand that these were conversations that went on for a couple of hours total — hours that we didn’t have considering the constraints of the competition. I should probably have picked my battles better and have little excuse save that I was sleep deprived and that made me trenchant. But ultimately it was decided that we would shoot the house location, then return to the office and reshoot the hostage scene with an adult — me — in the chair.[2]

The time lost in this debate created several discontinuities. The scene in the bedroom — in which Tanya originally attempted to shove potatoes in Daniel’s face like a psycho — was shot with daylight streaming into the windows, and the potatoes were “lunch.” But by the time we got into the kitchen, the sun had gone down and the room was dark.

Likewise, upon returning to the office location it was nearly 10PM and dark outside, which is why the window behind Daniel alternates between being blown out and not — that’s a clear indicator of what we shot when. Given that we had intended to be well into post-production by that point, we chose not to reshoot those reverses that we could use and just live with the discontinuity for the competition.

I like acting, I’ve done a fair bit of it and for a while I even thought that I might make that my primary career path. But over the years I’ve become more enamored with the director’s chair and I’ve moved behind the camera primarily. So I wasn’t planning to jump in front of it for this project, and the dark circles and exhaustion on my face in the scene are what you might call method acting. It was particularly challenging for me to direct when tied to a chair with tape over my mouth, and the obvious jokes were made about leaving me that way when the day wrapped. This is where the storyboards came in handy again — we were able to discuss the shots beforehand, and once I was in place we just rolled through them. (It also helped that between Ryan, Anthony, and Ski-ter on camera, there were plenty of good people I could trust to get the shot.)

Having come to the end of the day, I’m going to jump back to the beginning for a moment and talk about the plan a little more. Because we had determined that we were going to have a character who was, essentially, an effect, the intention was to be finished shooting by 8PM on Saturday night and have an edit together by 10PM, so that we could render plates and Ryan could start comping the monitor shots while Anthony and I laid in sound and found music.
Initially I was shooting conservatively — I knew we didn’t have much time and I didn’t want to make things too difficult effects-wise. But Ryan encouraged me to be a little more bold with the shooting, so shots from later in the day became noticeably more dynamic than earlier. (I’m particularly proud of Donnelson’s Max Headroom moment where he jumps from one screen to the other in the dual screen setup, which we came up with on the spot when we found a cubicle with two screens and two file cabinets.)

This accidental change in style is less obvious in the final release version, which includes some reshoots (discussed in a later post) and some digital handheld motion to smooth things over.

The Ronald Donnelson shoot happened at one A.M. in the living room of the condo I was living in at the time, with a fabric green screen set up in front of the French doors out to the patio, taped to the wall as best we could, and the camera as far back as it could get in the smallish living room.

At this point I had run just about out of steam. Fortunately, Charles, our actor, had a lot to bring to the character and made it his own. The “cloak-and-dagger hand” and Arsenio cheer Donnelson does were both ad-libs that we just had to use. There are a few lines I wish I had directed differently (I wanted more of a Don Pardo for “Thaaatt’s right!”) but overall I think he did a great job, and I was just grateful that he was there doing it until three in the morning.

And so, at three A.M. on Sunday, with 16 hours to go, we wrapped shooting on SPY GAMES and set to work editing. Next time: post-production.


  1. On a related note, if anyone out there is considering production insurance I highly recommend Heffernan Insurance, who carries my policy. They cover all my production equipment, which includes the laptop (which I also use on-set with the RED) and all the RED equipment. Just before the laptop was stolen some of the RED equipment was also thieverized and in both cases the claims process was no muss, no fuss, and they replaced the items right away. The idea of course is that you never need to have that conversation at all, much less twice in a month, but if you do it’s good to know that they are on top of it. I just hope my premium doesn’t skyrocket next year.
  2. An argument that came up repeatedly in discussion about this (and even since) is “Nobody’s going to shoot a kid.” I know. That’s the point. It’s an impossible situation, which I personally thought a stronger case than an adult stranger, which is still messed up but you could potentially bring yourself to pull the trigger (as many YouTube commenters have said they would). I’m not sure which is stronger — knowing he won’t do it and he’s fucked, or thinking he might do it and waiting to see. Ultimately what it came down to was that a little film like this was not worth the drama and discomfort it was causing the cast and crew, so it was finally scrapped.

From → filmmaking, Making of

One Comment
  1. WoW. Goes to show we never really know the effort and pain that goes into a production.
    I insist that it may have worked in your favor not having a kid in the picture, instead of adding tension it would have detracted it.
    With a child your first reaction is “no way”, with an adult is “may be” and that truly sends shrivers down your spine.
    Thanks for sharing and hope next project is as good or better but less headaches.

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