Even though we were born and raised in Turkey, our professional base is New York, so filming our first feature, Across the Sea, on the Aegean coast of Turkey was always going to be a challenge.
We were nervous not only because the film culture in Turkey was new to us, but also because of a range of environmental challenges: the tides swallowing our beach location; the wind; rocky beaches that we had no access to from land; ice cold waters we had to put our actors in; handling an octopus-bite scene; unconventional animal actors…
We make meaning in our storytelling with symbols, capturing nature and using it to get a feeling or a point across. Nature is chaotic and spontaneous, but it has its own rhythm and flow which we learned to get a grasp of and work with. Along with good planning, tricks and some luck—here’s how we made it work.
An Evil Tide Steals a Location
One year before we shot the film, we started location scouting. The film was going to be shot in the summer, so we did our scouting the previous summer to get a better sense of how the locations looked during that time of year. Even doing that, though, you can’t guarantee if a location will be the same when you come back a year later. That surprise happened to us with a dry swamp location in which we wanted shoot a soccer game-fight scene. We scouted a year before, but a month before filming, the swamp was not dry anymore, because there had been more rainfall that year. Location lost.
For one of our most climactic scenes, we wanted to film in a bay that was a fantastic fit for the subtext of the scene. There was this huge wall of rocks right by the shore and smaller rocks on the beach where the two kids in the scene could be separated from the ex-lover characters (the children were mirroring the past of the lovers). It looked timeless and surreal and we loved it.
A couple weeks before filming, we thought we’d check out the location and go over our shots. We got on a boat (you can’t access that location from land), and when we got to the beach, our entire location was gone because of the high tides. There was not even an inch of sand to step on.
It is very scary when your location disappears a couple weeks before filming—for a moment we thought that maybe we were at the wrong place. After getting over the shock, we sat down and looked into tide charts and predictions. During production, our producers tracked the changes in the beach. And we found a back-up location, just in case. Luckily, by the last week of filming, the tide had lowered, our beach was back and we ended up filming our scene there.
Accessing a Rocky Beach
Once the tide decided to give us our dreamy “bay scene” location back, we still had to figure out the logistics of shooting at this secluded beach. The huge wall of rocks right at the shore made it impossible to access the location from land, so we had to transport our cast and crew to the set by using boats.
The capacity of the two boats in total was about 15 people; we had 35 people and the equipment that we had to carry to the set. We couldn’t possibly go there directly by land from our base all at once, and making trips wouldn’t have been practical as it would have taken over an hour. So we found the closest beach to our location that could be accessed from land, and from there it was a 10-minute boat ride to our location.
We ended splitting up, with some of us taking the boats to the beach while the other half took the van. It was still a hassle, especially because on that day the currents decided to go wild. Being in a small boat with all your equipment is nerve-racking. That method ended up saving us more than an hour. Maybe you’re thinking an hour wasn’t worth all that trouble, but every extra minute on set is as precious as gold!
In one scene in the film, an octopus clings to a little girl’s leg while she hangs out by the sea. She is taken out of the water, and a man from the summer town of Burak takes the octopus off her leg. (For those who wonder if that’s something that actually happens in real life, yes it does—an octopus can cling to your leg as you swim. It happened to Esra when she was a kid and someone took it off.)
The most realistic way to recreate this in the film was to get a live octopus, wrap its legs around the girl and just film it! We knew from Esra’s experience that nothing really happens. But of course we also had to play safe. We bought a frozen, dead octopus from the fish market and tested our octopus stunt a couple months before the production. Our AD came up with the brilliant idea of sewing invisible strings through the legs of the octopus, so that we could control its legs like a puppet. We couldn’t afford a fancier option like animatronics or a realistic prop octopus, so in our low-budget world, this was the most authentic f/x possibility for us.
If we had needed extreme close-ups showing the tentacles of the octopus, this method wouldn’t have worked—since the octopus was dead. But when the girl was being pulled out of the sea, we see the octopus on her leg in a medium shot, which was easy to achieve.
The Fly, the Frogs, the Fox: Animal Handling
Having filmed both in Turkey and the U.S., we can report that there are differences in the way film sets are structured. Take our octopus case as an example: It was our AD who found the idea and tested it for us. When we were on set, it was our production designer who took care of it. People use animal handlers on set in Turkey as well, but it’s mostly on bigger budget productions, and usually for animals like horses, dogs and cows.
There is a Turkish crew position called the “set department” and their job is a mixture of a key PA and a grip. If there’s a strange job that needs to be done that doesn’t fall under any other crew member’s responsibility, then it’s the set department’s job. In our situation, our set department heroes not only took care of handling a fly and some frogs for a specific scene. They also searched for and found the animals for us in the first place.
We had a dozen frogs waiting for their turn to act, sitting in a cup. Once they’d done their part, we let them go. For the flies, our set people came up with a trick with sugar water.
There was a scene where a character was sleeping and we wanted a fly to walk on his face. We drew a trail with the sugar water on his face with a brush, patted it dry with a tissue so it didn’t look too wet on camera (we were filming a close-up), and put a hungry fly on his face. Voilà—the fly walked across his face! You need to be really gentle when you hold the fly as you position it on a spot, so as not to damage their wings and legs. We might have hurt one of fly #3’s legs; she flew away, so we don’t know if she recovered afterwards. We hope she’s okay.
Yet another scene involved a fox. We ended up using a dog that looked like a fox instead of finding an actual one, because of budget constraints (the actual fox would have been 10 times more expensive). In the scene, we needed the fox to walk through the garbage and eat some food, so we made layers of garbage in order to create a visual sense of depth. It also helped us hide the fact that we were filming a dog. We had the owner of the dog on set, who also acted as an animal handler.
Across the Sea takes place during the summer in a beautiful, quiet little summer town. But the picturesque beach and deep blue waters are deceiving: Once you step foot in the sea, it is so cold that it makes people scream, even in the hottest day of summer. People eventually get used to it—it’s a great tool for waking yourself up at a 5 a.m. shoot. But when it comes to filming a two-page scene that takes place in water, these temperatures aren’t ideal.
We love our actors and we prefer not to torture them, so we had to take breaks every once in a while. We had towels on standby for when they got out. Sometimes we would go in the water with them as well, to share the pain.
Filmmaking is about problem-solving. When we look back at the whole experience, we had quite a few bumps along the way, but we were able to deal with problems gracefully. Only the good memories remain. MM
Across The Sea premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, January 2015, where it won both the Audience and Grand Jury prize. It recently screened at ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles as part of the premiere experience ArcLight Slamdance Cinema Club. To learn more and see upcoming films in the series, click here.
Photographs courtesy of Slamdance Cinema Club.