or: Lessons learnt from making my first next-to-no-budget short movie
by Tom Løberg
Getting fired is the next best thing that ever happened to me. I had this lousy, underpaid job at the X-ray ward at the university hospital in Trondheim, carrying around x-rays for demonstrations, getting more frustrated by the day. Having already had a couple of confrontations with the management over a weekly newsletter I posted on the notice board – a parody of the official weekly newsletter filled with inane bull and sickly optimistic words-of-the-day and quotes from Feng Shui-books – to protest the incredible bad working condition they had us slaving under, I was provoked when they refused to give me a two days leave in January of 2004. I had seven weeks of vacation to go, having not taken any vacation the previous summer and having for the second year in a row saved the Christmas shift plan. I felt entitled to the two days to attend a workshop with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. When they flatly said «No,» I just said «I’m going to call in sick those two days,» and crossed my self of those two days on the shift plan.
That was the final straw of our unhappy relationship. They didn’t really fire me, though. They didn’t want the hassle. I was called into the Head of Office who informed me that they had decided to force me to take a three weeks vacation – «Starting now!» – and then pay me for the rest of the weeks they owed me. Then she said, «And we’re not going to renew your contract.» But they did fire me. She said, «We’re fireing you but we’re not really fireing you. We’re just letting you go.» I didn’t bother about the semantics. I actually felt happy and we hugged as I left.
The reason for telling you this is that whilst working at the hospital I had finished my first film, a feature length documentary about noise music, Nor Noise, and written and storyboarded a short film, that I really wanted to do. And suddenly one day I found myself unemployed with plenty of time on my hands and a small but sufficient sum of money; a rare situation for me to be in. So I left the hospital singing, determined to make some necessary changes to my life and to do what I yet hadn’t had the opportunity to do: Make the short film.
I wasted no time. I had the script. I had the main character – Per Erik, an actor who became a friend over lots of glasses of wine one fine evening and who kept saying «Yes!» to whatever I told him about my film. I didn’t know who would play the two other parts, and I needed locations. Piece of cake. The action takes place in a restaurant, a hotel lobby, a hotelroom and the hallway of a hotel. For the restaurant I sent a letter to the Palmehaven restaurant at Britannia Hotel in Trondheim, an old colonial style restaurant which perfectly suited the atmosphere I was looking for. I sent them a formal letter with a fancy letterhead, presented myself as a producer, and calling them up three days later. There were no problems getting a Yes. Lesson learnt: A nice letter head and a professional attitude gets you talking to the right people.
For the scenes in the hallway and the lobby, I needed another hotel. So I went location scouting. I visited every hotel in down town Trondheim; there are a lot of hotels there for such a small city. Making a point of acting professionally I still had several suspicious looks from desk clerks when I came asking. Some of them said it straight out: «We’re not going to allow you shooting porn in our hotel.» I never blinked an eye. I presented them with my papers, gave them the story line and concept of the film. Finally I found the Gildevangen hotel in down town Trondheim, which was perfectly suited for both the lobby shoot, and the scenes in the hallway and the room. The hallway needed to be connected to the elevator and here I found the perfect L-shaped location, which meant only minor alterations to the storyboarded script. I was lucky but I also learnt one valuable lesson from this: Find the locations first, then plot down the details in the script, it really saves you a lot of time and no one will mistake you for being a pornographer.
For the role as the concierge I asked a good friend of mine from the hospital, Erling. He also has no hair, as the main character, adding a poignant touch to the film. (It bears no significance, of course, but all the men acting in my short films have been bald… even the composer for this film is bald…)
For the role of the woman in the white dress I originally wanted a young girl. But I didn’t know any young girls, and using a child would also mean having the parents consent and the permission for her to miss two days of school. Too much bother, I though, and in a flash of inspiration asked a friend of mine, Ceci, if she wanted the part. She was hesitant and warned me that she was absolutely terrified every time she was in front of a camera, but bravely said yes anyway.
So there we were. The storyboard drawn out, the actors in place, the locations secured. We were ready to shoot.
The keys to non-budget movie making are having lots of time and good planning. It’s very seldom you have the time you want or need so good planning is really the key to it all. That, and friends doing it for nothing. I had a limited budget, but enough to pay for some technical equipment like a wide angle lens and lightning. The rest of the money was spent on food for the four of us the three days it took us to shoot the film. Lesson learnt: Borrow technical equipment. Spend the money making the people working on your film happy; this is especially important since this often is the only payment they’ll receive.
Having the storyboard saved us a lot of time on the set because it gives you the time to work exceptionally efficient; you already know where to place the camera. Whenever I see people on a set these days with nothing but a written script I know they are wasting three quarters of their time trying out stuff. The time saved can be used to keep the set calm, give everybody five minutes for a coffee-break when needed, and for playing around more constructively with shooting variations to different shots.
I have an idea in my head about what a good director should be like: He should be calm and clear on the set, and have a close to finished image of the film in his head. That’s what I tried to be when we shoot this film. But I also had to double as a producer, cameraman and directors assistant. To the actors I would give the impression that I was such a director. I had never directed actors before. I thought to myself, What would be helpful? I tried to make it look like I had it all in my head. The truth is I had it all on paper. The rest I took from the top of my head as we went along. Lesson learnt: Talk alot with the actors. All they really need is the reason why.
I know quite a lot about film. And about film making. But having read about it is one thing, doing it is – as all neophytes quickly learn – something else entirely. So you fake it. And in nine out of ten occasions you’ll get away with it. In that one occasion where you fall through you blame your self, never the others. Because as a director it’s really always your fault if something goes wrong. Admitting that will keep the set calm and the others feeling secure. The moral is – and I steal this from the street artist Banksy – «Become good at cheating and you never need to become good at anything else.» Of course it’s not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But it’s close enough. Lesson learnt: Good planning really pays off; the rest you get away with if you become good at cheating. And that is the truth!
The film was shot over three days. The first day – a sunday, the only day possible for all three actors to attend at the same time – shooting all the restaurant scenes in the morning and the lobby scene and all shots with the hotel concierge in the afternoon. Then we had dinner, which consumed almost one fifth of my entire budget.
The next day we shot all scenes in the hotel room and all scenes with the woman. Ceci also helped out as a script girl, director’s assistant and fed us home made buns. (By the way, that’s her mother’s wedding dress she’s using in the film.)
When you can’t afford to hire professional actors the trick is to write your script for the persons you’re going to use. And then get them to understand that they don’t have to act.
The main character of «The Letter» is an experienced actor from both screen and stage. He has a very strong screen presence. And the character is supposed to be a bit «still». So I simply told him to do absolutely nothing. «Act with your eyes,» I said to him. «Keep still and give me all the emotions through your eyes!» He really does a marvellous job doing nothing!
The other two are not actors and being nervous is very easily spotted on the big screen. So I told them to act naturally. Like Ringo Starr. When he did «Help» there is a scene where he just wanders around aimlessly and everyone congratulated him on an excellent performance. He later said that on the day of the shooting he was so hung over that he hardly managed to walk erect. There you have it; the secret of acting is being! So I said: «Do not act.» Which they did perfectly. No fuzz, no hassle. Just be there. If you have characters that work on several levels at the same time, you really don’t need the actors to do much. And you don’t need to be a trained actor to operate a vacuum cleaner or sit on a bed. Besides, the more the actor looks like the part he/she is playing, the less they have to do. Those big-shot Hollywood casting agents sure know what they’re doing! Lessons learnt: Film is the noble art of understatement. A lot of amateurs like me forget that.
The last day of shooting it was just Per and me. We spent it getting on tape the rest of the material for the story line, and then just played around, improvising a lot of stuff that we might have a use for. Some of it went into the breaking-up sequence before the ending, most of it only the cutting room floor got to see.
Editing is a long, often tedious and cumbersome process. I love it. I quickly made an edited draft of the film based on the storyboard. Then sat down waiting for the soundworks of artist Lasse Marhaug.
I had sent him detailed information about the film; the story line and expression I wanted. I wanted a basic background sound for each room; I wanted each character to have his or her own sound identity. Lasse sent me CDs filled with sounds for me to choose from. Some are used as they were, some I mixed, sometimes I had him send me more. But he really nailed it. Peter Greenaway once said that the sound is 80 percent of the experience of the film; I couldn’t agree more.
A good advice and another lesson learnt: When making a film it always pays to have friends with special skills and talents. Lasse, being one of the most profiled noise artists around and with an astute sense of both sound and vision, could give me exactly what I wanted.
With the sounds/music I made alterations to the first edited version, mostly a question of pacing and tempo but also some of the sequences underwent major changes. This film is an example of how a good sound gives an image added importance.
The music/sound was consciously defining some of the scenes: When the main characters first enters «the Room» after being «forced to» walk down the hallway, I asked for a crescendo in the music; for the breaking-up sequence I asked for and got a number of short pieces to mix and play around with; and for the long shot at the end I just wanted the music to take off. And it did.
As a piece of trivia I can mention that Lasse later made kind of a suite from the sounds made for my film, which was released as «Carnival of Souls» on Thisco records (2005); I concider it my film’s OST album.
For me, an interesting reaction to the film is that many find it scary. They liken it to Asian horror films. But I never wanted to make a horror film. I wanted to make an existential film with an absurd undertone and a hint of a dreamlike world where time would flow into time in a never ending circle. I was inspired by Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and the whole concept for the disintegration of the image – of the soul – in the final shoot, I stole from Bergman. I even made a chart of the story’s timeline and structure so I would have a clear vision of it:
At the time of writing and shooting «The Letter» I hadn’t seen that much of Korean and Japanese horror, films like the Ringu-films or the original The Grudge. If I had I would certainly have made some changes to my film. As I said, originally I wanted a small girl to play the character now a woman. Ceci with her long, dark hair suited the part perfectly at the time. She is meant to be a symbolic presence, not a ghost. Had I seen the Ringu-films I would have had to drop her and found someone else for the part. My casting choice was pure coincidence. But I understand if you don’t believe me on this one; the similarities are too striking. Lesson learnt: You can’t see it all but you should see more than enough.
The premiere was held at my favourite hang out spot on Svartlamo’n in Trondheim, a wonderfully eclectic café called Ramp.
We celebrated with a fancy dinner first, where I spent most of the rest of the budget, and of course treated ourself to champagne at the screening. Which added a nice touch in a place frequented by punks, anarchists and former squatters.
The turn up for the screening was quite good, which obviously annoyed some of the elder people from the neighbourhood, who likes the place for the cheap beer but don’t care much for the music they play or all the punks.
So in the middle of the screening some of them got up and fumbled their way towards the exit, blinded by the light from the projector they stood swaying in front of the screen, their arms wavering in front of their eyes, their shadows on the screen resembling some quaint monster in a 40-ies horror flick.
I soon after followed after them outside. Not to yell at them but to have a cigarette. I have never been that comfortable waiting for reactions to my work.
I stood outside, smoking, watching my film through the window. Two old ladies were curious about the film and rather impressed when they found out that I had made it. They obviously believed me to be an important director (I wore a suit). «Do you know any major stars?» They were not in the mood to watch films to night, they told me. They only wanted to drink beer. One of the old ladies took my arm and said she was certain it was a very good film. «I will watch it the next time they screen it on TV,» she told me.
I know for a fact she still hasn’t seen it.
Porsgrunn, August 2007
Film: Tom Løberg
Soundwork: Lasse Marhaug
With: Per Erik Walslag, Cecilie Thørring and Erling Lona
17 min DV Pal Stereo 2.0
Screening format: DVD
© Pastiche Films 2004
© Pastiche Films 2007
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