A Bag of Hammers tells the story of Ben (Jason Ritter, “Parenthood”) and Alan (Jake Sandvig, Easy A), two twentysomething grifters whose carefree, criminal lifestyle (the duo steals cars by posing as valets) is challenged when a neglected 12-year-old boy (Chandler Canterbury) wanders into their lives. Also starring Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Carrie Preston (“True Blood”), A Bag of Hammers is the feature debut of director Brian Crano, who co-wrote the script with Sandvig. Here, Crano shares just a few of the lessons he learned while making the film.
Making a film, you learn a lot of lessons—often contradictory lessons, but lessons nonetheless. These are a few of the thousand lessons I learned in the process of making my first feature, A Bag of Hammers. I’ll skip the really obvious ones, like “Write a great, compelling script” or “cast the best actors you can”…
“It’s Only Forever”
Preciousness is probably a universal prerequisite for directors. Prior to making A Bag of Hammers, if you’d given me a two-sentence pitch and told me there was a crew of warm bodies around the corner, I would stop typing and start running to set. Part of the job is being ready, or at least looking ready, so from day one I was ready to make the film. But I’m glad I didn’t make the film on day one. During Bag, I learned patience.
Peter Friedlander, my producer (mentor is probably more accurate), early in our working relationship when I was no doubt bitching about wanting to launch into the film right then and there (without financing or cast), stopped me dead with “It’s only forever.”
The films you make, particularly your first film (which will determine if there is a next), will live with you for the rest of your life and after. So you don’t want to rush into it. You can’t afford to be cynical. You want to make sure you have no regrets. Basically, it’s like a tattoo: You want to make sure it’s the right one in the right place at the right time. When Peter said this, I was sure I was in the right hands. Peter (and eventually the rest of the assembled team) created a space where I could make the film I wanted to make, and “It’s only forever” became the predicate and the filter through which we made every decision.
The Element of Surprise
Figure out a way to surprise the viewer. Then do it again and again and again, until they are dizzy or crying.
Bag is an exercise in manipulating the viewers’ expectations. This was the strategy from the beginning. For a film to have an effect, I believe it has to be surprising. Audiences consume so much narrative that they easily see through predictable structures, which can leave them cold. My strategy with Bag was to continually undercut viewers’ expectations, making the experiences they were having watching the film match those of the characters in it.
We established the film as a traditional buddy comedy. Then, as soon as the audience (and characters) were comfortable in this consequence-free mode, we pulled the rug out from under them as they witnessed something really dark. This cycle repeats and repeats, never letting the audience really settle into a passive mode of viewing. In fact, there is a moment in the film that through its festival run has played with 100% consistency: Each time, it first gets a huge laugh, then the audience realizes the context (that our characters are going to a funeral for the first time as guests, rather than thieves), and there is an audible gasp. This is one of my favorite moments in the film, because I know it comes as a revelation.
This approach isn’t simply for my own satisfaction. I did it because I wanted to make the film as emotionally complex as possible—like life, mine at least, which rarely offers as simple binary choices as happy or sad, grieving or in love, in pain or in ecstasy. Rather, it seems to be all of those things, in equal measures, at once. People speak of consistent tone like it’s some unachievable brass ring. It’s overrated; any sitcom can do it, so push yourself. Tone is a myth.
Get a Max
Max Hurwitz is a close friend and brilliant screenwriter. We’ve been friends for a long time. When I was asked by production if I wanted an assistant for the shoot, I said, “No, I’ll take Max.”
Everyone on set has an agenda. The department heads want more money and more crew, the producers want to make their day, the talent wants to go home. When you are their director, they spend all day feeding off you like crows. I wanted one person on set who was there for me, whom I could trust to have no agenda. Max prepped the film with me. We went through every aspect before we got to set, so he knew what I needed out of each scene. On set I asked him to stand two feet to my right and never leave my side. This way I always had backup, could always ask “You think we got it?” and have a trusted, unbiased view. Max could answer everyone’s questions so I could focus on shooting. And if we were in the weeds, I could send Max ahead to prep the next location, put out a fire, stop someone from crying, etc.. He was like a (super)human external hard drive.
So—get your own coffee, and get assistance from the most capable person you know. Let them serve a creative function. Max saved my ass again and again on the film (and continues to). His influence on Bag cannot be overstated. Find someone you trust implicitly, creatively, and make them your “Max.”
What I love about drama is it’s naked in the room, meaning everyone on set can tell if the scene is working or not. If it’s not working, rather than pressing on, panicking or yelling at your producer (all things I’ve tried with pretty lame results), stop and do something else.
This sounds simple, but in the heat of the moment it’s tricky and requires a whole lot of self-belief. You have to be able to trust yourself in that moment to change everything up. If you know the angle you’re looking at sucks, change it. If the performance isn’t hitting what it needs to, give the actor something entirely different to do. If the scene you’ve been convinced would be a home run is DOA, take two minutes to yourself and choose a bold new direction.
Being impulsive doesn’t mean being immediate. It means allowing yourself a moment to be creatively objective, to watch what’s happening with the detachment of a viewer and then respond to it like a professional. If you can be detached from your “great ideas” it will save you re-shoots, which if you’re making an indie you can’t afford anyway.
We also had an impossible-to-complete schedule, as there is a long and climactic montage where the viewer sees the characters in the film grow up as a family. While this was only 10 script pages, it translated into 50 scenes. Further complicating our 24-day shooting schedule, we shot Bag in Los Angeles, in the Valley, mostly outdoors, during the hottest summer on record. So crew mutiny was a high possibility. In addition, one of the film’s leads was 10 years old and could only be on set eight hours a day, of which he could only work five. Ugh.
Despite this, I had this crazy idea that we could, if we kept the time it took to shoot set-ups completely minimal, make our shooting schedule in just twelve hours a day, no overtime. To be honest, when we started I didn’t think it was possible. However, a lot of my directoral approach comes down to nerve, stating what you’d like to have happen in a clear, authoritative voice and expecting the best, then dealing with reality. So to establish a pace, the first day on set, I made sure our day was going to be impossible. Too many scenes, too many set-ups. We would have to fly to make it. We assembled the crew, and I told them that we could make our day if we focused, worked and communicated well. I was met with blank stares. But we managed to make that day with time to spare, which gave everyone a huge sense of confidence and set a pace for the rest of the shoot. We only went over twice in 24 days, and even then by only an hour each time. Working to a tight schedule can seem like a bear, but if you embrace it, it can yield huge results.
Best Idea Wins
Filmmaking is a team sport. Everyone on your cast and crew has ideas of how to make the film better. Hearing them out can yield huge results and save you. I try to listen to anyone who has an idea and then take the best one. There’s no shame in assuming you aren’t necessarily the smartest person in the room. I managed, with much help and assistance, to make a film that, seven years into the process, I am proud of. I think I will continue to feel that way for a long time. Hopefully forever…
A Bag of Hammers opens tomorrow, May 11th, at the Village East Cinema in New York City and on Friday, May 18th at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 theater in Los Angeles. For more on the film and to keep up with future screenings, visit abagofhammers.com.