Three Trembling Cities, From Scene to Screen: The Process of Bringing a Scene To Life

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Location Scouting

Ben and I were talking about this shoot while I was still writing the script. He wanted to make sure we showed as much of New York City as possible, particularly areas that have large and diverse immigrant populations. 

We did a few scouts in early spring in Jackson Heights, Bay Ridge and points in between. There was one particularly great street corner in Bay Ridge we thought would make an excellent spot for our meet-up scenes.

The background—the restaurants and hookah bars—and the foreground—the bench and wide sidewalk—worked really well together visually.

The script originally called for the two “couples” to start off on opposite sides of the street from each other. Then Behrouz sees Ilona smoking and crosses the street to meet her. But it became clear that this would be more difficult to shoot—we’d have to coordinate actions from across the street, and hope a car or bus didn’t block our line of sight. Having our couples on the same side of the street made much more sense.

This change also opened up some cool visual ideas. Ben saw that he could frame all four characters in a single shot at various points in the foreground/background (see the setup “A” photo below). This gave the whole scene some real dynamism—as opposed to cutting between talking heads, we suddenly had a sense of depth and geography.

Diagramming and Shot Listing

I’m a terrible freehand artist. On a good day I can draw some stick figures. I prefer creating top-down diagrams instead, which I supplement with stick-figure thumbnails and notes. People can grasp the diagrams pretty quickly, and I can carry the whole script’s diagrams in one binder.

The first scene has three setups:

A. Traveling up-angle leading shot of Urmi and Ilona, as they walk and talk to the bench

B. Identical to A, but with Behrouz and Azin, as they walk and talk on the street

C. Tighter 2-shot of Urmi and Azin

Three Trembling Cities shot diagram. Courtesy of Arthur Vincie

Using the same master for both couples emphasizes their parallel journeys. Shooting from below the eyeline catches more of the background, and engages audiences a little more. Three setups gave me options to cut with.

In the next scene, we have six setups:

A.WIDE shot that might encompass the bench and all four characters

B. TIGHTER moving shot on Urmi during her phone call

C. TIGHTER moving shot on Azin during her phone call

D. TIGHTER shot on Behrouz and Ilona at the bench

E. FOUR-SHOT (or over-the-shoulder Azin) at the end

F. REVERSE of E (OTS Urmi) at the end

Three Trembling Cities shot diagram. Courtesy of Arthur Vincie

I also noted that setups five and six could serve as some medium shot/close-ups.

Ben and I talked about the possibility of filming the scene with two cameras. It made sense, except that might take more coordination and rehearsal time, to make sure the two cameras didn’t catch each other in the shot. Also, we’d have to take more time setting up lights.

Nine setups in total, for two scenes that totaled about four and half pages, seemed doable.

The Schedule

Our day would start off with a restaurant scene between Urmi and Azin. We were shooting that scene at Videology, a bar/screening room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The company move between there and Bay Ridge would take somewhere between 45 minutes and one hour. We set the call time at 11 a.m., with an early lunch break (4:30 p.m.). Then we’d wrap out of the location by 5 p.m. and get to Bay Ridge by 6 p.m. We had some short scenes to shoot ahead of our street scenes, but with luck we’d be shooting by 8, shoot out the scene by 11, tackle a short 1-page scene (with two-to-three setups) afterwards, and wrap the night at midnight.

The alarm bells began going off in my head. It was an 11-plus page day, with a company move in the middle. But I couldn’t find another spot to put the scenes without adding another day for each of the cast (more money for actor pay).

Reality Intrudes

Our day started out late—due to some subway issues, some of the crew arrived between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. We didn’t wrap out of our [first] location until about 5:45pm. By this point we were squarely in rush hour. We crawled through traffic and arrived at [our second location] around 7:15ish. We shot our two short scenes, and then headed to our street corner in Bay Ridge. By this point it was roughly 10 p.m., and we were about two hours behind schedule.

There was no way to shoot nine setups across two scenes, or try to rehearse the two-camera moves. We had to go with one camera. Ben and I walked through the scene together, and realized we could (a) do the two scenes as a single scene; (b) consolidate several setups. We reconfigured the setups slightly, but I kept the blocking mostly the same.

So now we had six setups:

  1. Traveling shot with Urmi and Ilona was the same, but carried through Urmi’s conversation on the phone. It turned into a moving master that captured Azin/Behrouz’ entrance in the background.
  2. The second setup was also the same, except now we followed Behrouz to the bench, where it turned into a master on the Behrouz/Ilona part of the scene, eventually leading to a 4-shot of everyone at the bench.
  3. Medium shot (MS) of Azin on the phone. Turned into a traveling shot that followed her to the bench. Then it became a two-shot of Azin and Behrouz that we could end the scene on.
  4. MS of Urmi on the phone. Ben swung the camera around her so that we’d end on something similar to setup A. The camera followed her back to the bench, to end on a 2-shot of Urmi and Ilona.
  5. Down-angle MS on Ilona at the bench. Used for the middle part of the scene.
  6. Up-angle MS on Behrouz at the bench.

Shots in Three Trembling Cities from various set-ups in sequence, featuring Ferme, Mokhtar, Sherz Aletaha as Azin and Nandita Chandra as Urmi. Courtesy Arthur Vincie

We were able to consolidate nine setups in six, while making the individual setups more complex. Ben also tweaked the movement and framing a bit from take to take, which gave me more options in the editing room.

It took a little time to figure out the right placement in time and space for the phone calls. We wanted to space the three groupings of actors out in a believable way, so Urmi and Azin would have some privacy during their very personal phone calls.

We had to work very fast, and everyone was pretty tired (we didn’t wrap until 2:30 a.m.), but the performances and cinematography were actually improved by shooting in this more condensed way. By combining the two scenes into one, we made it a little easier for the actors to keep up the moment to moment intensity. Ben’s compositions and Glidecam work gave me some beautiful shots to choose from.

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