How They Did It: Directing Actors, Stunt Doubles, Dogs, and Roosters on the Unpredictable Set of Mobile Homes

Shooting a scene in my new film Mobile Homes in which a mobile home falls into a lake presented a big challenge—one with which my crew and I didn’t really know how to proceed.

There was no cinematic precedent that we could refer to to help us shoot a sequence like this one, which involved a chase between a mobile home and a truck. We did look at scenes from Fitzcarraldo, Titanic, and The Sweet Hereafter for inspiration, but that mostly just depressed us, as we were reminded of the tools those moviemakers had that we did not. We had to start from scratch, so we all sat down—our producers, stunt coordinators, director of photography, production designer, and art department—to figure out how to make the scene work with the budget we had, and the fact that we only had access to one mobile home for the entire length of the shoot made planning that much more difficult.

We realized that we needed to proceed by shooting in chronological order, because we didn’t know whether the mobile home would survive the chase, or if it would either float or break in half when it was catapulted into the water. The kind of condition the vehicle would be in after those events take place would impact the scenes that take place after the crash. So, we shot the chase and the accident separately. After we filmed the chase, we removed the engine from the truck and drilled holes into the mobile home to make sure they would sink.

To shoot the action, we put three main cameras on the ground and DSLRs and GOPROs in various places, including on bamboo underwater, and we had a tractor pull the truck and the mobile home with a huge cable. We only had one shot, so it had to work. The mobile home fell in the water and once it was still, we had a truck stabilize it, and our stunt people went into the lake in our actor’s costume to perform the shots in which our characters escape from the sinking mobile home.

We then pulled what was left of the broken mobile home out of the water and placed in a storage on a farm. We cut a corner off of the vehicle, and weeks later, we used a truck to suspend it over a giant trash bin filled with water, in which our actors performed those shots that were framed from inside our cut-out, suspended piece of mobile home. Further, we also cut a side of the mobile home that we placed in a swimming pool, and had the actors swim through the vehicle’s broken windows, so we could connect our exterior shots with the stunt doubles with our interior shots with the actual actors underwater.

Director Vladimir de Fontenay on the set of Mobile Homes. Image courtesy of Darkstar Pictures

Our team first thought we could never afford such a sequence, and then when we discovered we could, we began to think we’d simply not be able to pull it off with our limited resources. But in the end, it was extremely fun to design—like building a Lego figurine that we’d only be able to finish in the editing and visual effects room. Pulling off this sequence also forced me to storyboard for the first time, as I had to ensure that everyone would understand what it was we were looking at as we handled the logistics.

Making Mobile Homes was the first time I’ve had to work with animals. They’re unpredictable and sometimes impossible to direct. We had a dog who didn’t want to run when it was required and roosters taking off between takes, but if you accept those possibilities as inevitabilities and become more flexible, that can be really freeing. Each of these unpredictable factors breathes life into every scene and forces everyone to remain super-focused. One scene set in a motel room, in which a rooster jumps from a character’s arms and lands on another’s head, was completely improvised… by the rooster. Our steady cam operator followed the rooster and Imogen played the unplanned moment naturally, and that casual spontaneity is what made the scene feel authentic and compelling in a way I would have never dared to write.

The production of this film also marked the first time that snowstorms ever froze my shoot to a halt. The temperature on the first day of our shoot was 34.6 degrees; our camera lenses were frequently fogging, we had to drop certain locations, and some of our vehicles either got stuck in the snow or slipped off the icy roads. It was a nightmare. Our actors were freezing the whole time, and there’s only so many layers of clothing you can wear before starting to look like a snowman. When they look cold and tired in the film, they’re actually very cold and very tired, and that helped the performances.

It was extremely ambitious trying to make a road trip with animals, water, kids, and stunts fit into our 24-day schedule. However, for my next film I hope to be more conscious of the fact that some of these elements have a direct impact on what’s most important on set: Your time with the actors.

Making Mobile Homes also taught me that you can’t be too attached to ideas. Having a lack of control over every idea you initially plan to execute can force you to react to things instinctively. Any size of a location, shape of a jacket, color of the sky, or interaction between two actors can wind up being different from what your script initially envisioned, and you sometimes have no choice but to create a new alternative based on unpredictable changes. Adapting to these changes is challenging, but thrilling if you’re surrounded by collaborators that are willing to work with the elements of your surrounding environment.

Callum Keith Rennie as Robert in a scene from Mobile Homes

I’ll leave moviemakers with eight things:

1. Be ready to not be ready. Anticipate every move so you can adjust to the curveballs of the moment.

2. Everything written on the page is meant to die and become an image.

3. Fight for your vision—for the images you had in your mind before writing the film—and do so alongside everyone on your team.

4. Don’t get stuck with cumbersome setups.

5. Never assume a problem in the script is going to get miraculously solved on set.

6. Be extremely careful with sound.

7. Fight for more shooting time.

8. Most importantly, follow the roosters. MM

Mobile Homes opened in theaters November 16, 2018, and On Demand and Digital HD January 22, 2019, courtesy of Darkstar Pictures. All images courtesy of Darkstar Pictures.

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