Thomas Beatty’s Little Tips from The Big Ask: Advice for Shooting an Indie in the Desert

Thomas Beatty’s new film The Big Ask follows three couples into the desert, where they find heat, healing and possibly an orgy. Beatty, who wrote and co-directed the film with his wife Rebecca Fishman, gave MovieMaker some advice for getting down-and-dirty in the desert. The film is available on VOD and opens in select theaters on May 30.

Great production value and cheap locations make the desert a popular place to shoot small indie films. But the desert also provides a unique set of challenges. Here are some tips, from our crew to yours, that may help get you through your shoot relatively unscathed. More importantly, they may help you get through the shoot, period.

“Eggshells are not an effective rattlesnake deterrent.”
-Jennifer Westin, Producer

If you decide to really go for it and shoot your movie at, say, the edge of the known world, you will likely experience some critters. While the most disturbing “pest” on our shoot was the swarm of bugs Ahna O’Reilly found when she returned to her rental house (she very sweetly called our producer and reported the mini-plague), by far the most dangerous was the presence of rattlesnakes outside our crew house. One took up residency in front of the front door, effectively blocking our sound mixer from his bed after a 15-hour day. Jennifer thinks you should also know that it takes an average of one week for Animal Control to respond on site when you tell them a venomous snake won’t move from the doorway, so definitely don’t count on them to help.

Note: If you decide to put your parents through the unenviable task of catering your movie, and if they are foolish enough to agree to do so, make sure they know that the snake on the patio is real! Otherwise they will decide that it must be plastic, start poking it with a broom and when it rattles say, “Oh! It must be battery operated!” Only by the grace of God will they manage to survive the shoot and laugh about the tale later.

Additional Note: Getting your parents to forgive you for dragging them out to the desert in the first place is a whole other situation.

 

“There is no un-windy season.”
-Rebecca Fishman, Co-Director

As you probably know, it is vital that you have a good schedule when you’re shooting on a tight budget in a limited amount of time. The best advice we got from another filmmaker was to give each day’s set-ups a number from one to four. ‘One’ set-ups are vital to the story. Without them, you don’t have a movie. ‘Four’ set-ups are the awesome shots you’ve devised in your head that, while amazing, are not essential. Make sure every day has a healthy dose of each number because most of the time, those ‘fours’ will go out the window.

We arrived with a perfectly calibrated 17-day shooting schedule with the right number of ‘fours’ every day and a relatively easy transition from days to splits to nights. Our first few days were scheduled to be primarily exteriors. Everything was going smoothly during our last prep-day. Then, the winds came. These were the worst winds seen in Joshua Tree in April in more than a decade. They destroyed our mirror stand and crafty tent, picking them up like they were Tinkertoys. More importantly, they destroyed our schedule. What we discovered was that despite having to throw out the end result of a month of work we’d spent scheduling, the fact that we knew the schedule so well was vital in being able to come up with a new one on the fly. Because we knew the schedule in our bones, we didn’t lose the movie before we had begun.

 

“Don’t sugarcoat it.”
-Me

After a friend gave the script to amazing casting director Rich Delia, and he and Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee agreed to cast the movie, we realized that it wouldn’t just be us and our friends venturing out to the desert. We were ecstatic at the caliber of actors that agreed to come on this journey with us, but we were also aware that it meant upping our game in terms of amenities. However, with the budget we were on, we knew there was only so much upping we would be able to do (basically none). We tried to make it very clear to the actors how down-and-dirty this thing was going to be. They all seemed game. But it’s a whole other thing when it’s real.
Needless to say, we were glad we had stressed how middle-of-nowhere we would be when, on the day they arrived, there were two RVs, four dirt bikes and six dudes in wife beaters shooting pistols at empty cans on the plot of land next door to our location house. I guess you could call what they were doing target practice, except that the cans were maybe two feet in front of them. My first thought, of course, was whether the gun shots were going to mess with our sound the following day but I guess the cast had some concerns about whether or not they were about to die. And it wasn’t just the cast. We were straight-up with the whole crew as well, and it paid off. While everyone had days where they were hot and dehydrated and exhausted, there was much less resentment than there would have been had we lied about what we were all getting into.

BIG ASK ARTICLEWriter_co-director Thomas Beatty and 1st AD Danny Giles

Co-director Thomas Beatty and first A.D. Danny Giles

“Make sure you put a high SPF sunscreen on all of your talent every day, even just for one scene.”
-Ashlyn Melancol, Make-Up Department Head

First off—that’s right! We had a make-up and hair person. What luxury! Except not so much for her. She had to deal with six principals with similar call times almost every day. Finally we had to start calling actors in early to get prepped, which was also hell on our schedule since we were working with strict 12-hour days for the cast. If you cast David Krumholtz, absolutely do not listen to him when he tells you that he doesn’t need sunscreen because he doesn’t ever get burned, else you might find yourself with a deeply-browned, vaguely-Greek-looking leading man with a sunburn on his scalp. This version of Krumholtz will then require all kinds of special make-up for him to look like the same guy you were shooting the day before. Here are Ashlyn’s additional tips:

• Don’t put your set bag on a cactus.
• Bring a bandana and a real coat. It gets dusty during the day & cold at night.
• You can never drink too much water or wear too much sunscreen.
• Everyone wants Chapstick and eye drops.

“If you’re shooting in a remote location it helps to have a big camera house backing you up.”
-Aaron Kovalchik, Director of Photography

“Double check it.”
-Adriane Zaudke, Line Producer

When you’re shooting digitally, every once in a while you get a corrupted card. It happens, especially when there’s a lot of dirt around. When we finished a split day at four in the morning and Aaron found that a few shots had gotten corrupted he didn’t worry about it. But Adriane, our LP, wouldn’t let him go to bed until he took the camera out to double check it. The camera wouldn’t even turn on. It was fried. Luckily our camera package was part of a grant we’d gotten from Panavision, so there was the possibility of a replacement. If we had borrowed a camera, as we were hoping to do, we would have been done, at least for a few days. Ultimately someone left Panavision in LA with a new camera body at 6 AM to get to us by 11 a.m. so that we didn’t lose any time before we started out the next day. If we had lost even a day of shooting we may not have completed the film. We got incredibly lucky. But also, we had someone who wasn’t going to let anything slide. Whereas on a bigger budget movie a “contingency” means that you can lose a day here or there (I remember one story where the film canisters that held a day’s worth of footage of exterior New York City crowd scenes literally got stolen off the set. But the movie survived!) in our case, “contingency” meant we wouldn’t have to further max out our credit cards if someone dropped a 50mm 1.2 Panavision prime lens on the last day of shooting (they did). Oh yeah—also you need to have a contingency.

Aaron Kovalchik is a champion among men. He’s someone we would want at our side in any situation. He did the work of ten men to make our movie look so much better than it had any right to look. So I guess the advice here is get a DP you would trust with your unborn child and who you don’t ever want to murder. Here are some additional tips from Aaron:

• It’s windy. Any bounce or reflector you put outside is gonna dance like crazy. Not much you can do about it.
• In the middle of the desert sound carries like crazy. If you need to use a generator bring a whole lot of blankets to cover the sound.

 

“Get a car with rear wheel drive. Let it breathe, baby.”
-Tom McMillan, Production Designer

When we sent out a call for extras for a big bar scene, we had almost a hundred of the coolest looking people you’ve ever seen show up, including the mayor of 29 Palms. Everyone was so kind and accommodating. Tom walked into the bar we were shooting, moved some stuff around and that was it. Rebecca, my wife and co-director is an incredible photographer in her own right. She has an eye for design and had a very specific color palette for the movie. But it took her and Tom a while to get on the same page. He wanted to keep things a little off-kilter, a little more real. And he was right. We did less to the environments we entered and the movie was the better for it. That said, Tom had to literally plant a cactus in a grove of cactuses so we could knock it down.

One final note on cacti. They are bastards. Do not trust them. No matter how long they sing you a lullabye, do not go to sleep. Do not try to sit on them. Or else Tom might have to do this:

 

While this article may at times read like a cautionary tale, it should also be considered an advertisement for an awesome people and place. I don’t want to tell you to go shoot in Wonder Valley because I want to keep it all to myself. But I do want to give a special shout out to all the people there that helped us in so many ways. The Sibleys particularly are a super awesome desert band that make an appearance in the movie and were integral to helping the movie get made. Wherever you end up shooting, try to make it a place that’s happy to have you, because no matter how hard you try not to, you will piss people off. Also, get ready for the craziest month of your life. If you’re lucky, like us, you’ll come away with great friends, great stories and a movie you’re really proud of having made. And almost no permanent trauma.

Photographs by Rebecca Fishman.

The Big Ask opens in select theaters May 30, 2014, and is currently available on VOD.

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