This is a recollection of a certain Thursday in May of 2014.
The Chemical Cut crew and I, the DP, had a noon call time at the L.A. Arboretum. It was toward the end of the schedule, and we had all established a rhythm with each other by that point. We may not have realized it at first, but this day, in particular, would put our non-verbal communication skills and our acting skills to the test.
I arrived with Dan Juenemann, our master gaffer, a bit early to prep the camera and mentally prepare for the day. We had previously discussed with the rest of the crew how important it would be to remain in plain sight, yet hidden from the authorities. We were never in any real danger—what we were doing wasn’t a major offense, but we were on a tight schedule, had a lot to do there, and couldn’t afford to get shut down.
I put the strap on the camera and let it dangle from my neck, tourist style. On my back was a pack containing an electronic viewfinder, batteries, memory cards and lenses, and on my belt loop was a monopod. Dan stuffed some scrap duvetin and unbleached muslin into a pouch with a flex-fill, and filled a doctor’s bag with rope, clips, clamps and other things that might come in handy.
We noticed other cars arriving and greeted them subtly. Security had been circling the parking lot in a golf cart since we arrived so we kept our distance from our crewmates. We saw the rest of our team preparing themselves outside their own cars, similarly to Dan and me.
Once our prep was complete, we approached the entrance in a staggered formation, still not talking to anyone. As far as the outside world was concerned, we were just three groups of unrelated folks here to enjoy nature. Waiting in line for tickets, I was sure that everyone was on to our ruse. Afterward, though, it seemed that I had been self-important. In reality, the people working the ticket booth were waiting for us to all leave so they could get back to their own lives—to themselves.
We had scouted the location a day or two before and determined an ideal meeting point for everyone, as well as a few prime shooting locations. On the day, we all met at the rendezvous point, quickly confirmed our plan, then headed to the first location—a spot next to a lake, protected by a maze of bamboo from the road.
The scene was between the protagonist Irene, played by director Marjorie Conrad, and her friend Arthur (Ian Coster). In it, Arthur tries to convince Irene to move across the world with him. We had picked the spot due to its seclusion from the main road, but when we arrived, we realized that the lovely trees that hid our presence also barred us access to the sun. But, as was the case many times over the course of filming this movie, the universe opened its arms to us.
I opened my bag and started building the camera. The EVF was being stubborn and it took me a few minutes to get things properly situated. By the time we were ready to shoot, bystanders had wandered into our area, so we broke formation and pretended to all be separately enjoying the surroundings. When the coast was clear, we shot the scene’s master shot without changing the light that was there. When we moved into the closer coverage, the sun shone just near enough to the edge of the lake for Dan to catch a bit with his bounce, and we had what we needed to make things look a bit nicer.
After the scene was shot, we broke formation again and walked separately to our second spot within the arboretum—a grass hut. This location, while not as secluded, was perfect in that we could pile inside the hut and be invisible to anyone outside.
The day was warm, bordering on hot. We all got into the hut. It was shady inside, but the air was still and warm. At the top of the roof was a hole less than a foot in diameter. Dan used the light spilling through this opening to light our actors via his bounce. The unbleached muslin was able to return a good amount of the light and at the same time keep the warm quality the hut was already producing because of its color.
We spent a good amount of time in that hut, and after a while, it got quite stuffy and uncomfortable. Marjorie started feeling sick, though she only ever mentioned this later. Her real physical distress was evident in camera and I think it was one of these later takes that ended up being used in the film. I like to think that her fever was all part of the grand plan—creating the best circumstances within which to realize this film, even if we couldn’t recognize it as that at the time.
Emerging from the tent into the now hot sunny exterior was at first a relief, then a realization that we all needed water. Our tiredness now causing us to relax our discipline, we headed to our third and final spot more or less together. It was at the back of the park and there was not much foot traffic that deep.
We must have planned our trip through the arboretum with our energy consumption in mind, at least subconsciously. Our destination was a huge tree, the kind of tree that one can climb simply by walking up its thick sinewy limbs. Its leaves were flat and heavy and created a primordially soothing sound when they caught the wind. Everyone immediately went into rest mode under its breezy shade while Marjorie and I figured out how the scene could play out.
An interesting note about this scene, which did not make the final cut of the film, is that it was a back-up for the scene we just shot in the hut. We had picked it as an alternate location in case we got kicked out of any of the others, but our day had gone off without a hitch so far, so we had another chance to capture this scene in a different way.
The tree, with its tall canopy directing the breeze over us all, created such a different environment than the hut. The sounds and smell and feelings were night and day, so shooting here could make a completely different version of the scene and Marjorie could decide later which one worked best.
In the end, I understand why this scene wasn’t used in the film. It would have been much harder to cut given the more complicated blocking and spatial characteristics, but a part of me misses seeing it represented in the movie. Perhaps that tree reminded me of my childhood, or of other films I’ve seen. Perhaps it was the relief it brought to us—its shade and its cool breeze. Perhaps that was the role it was meant to play for us.
When we were done shooting the scene by the tree, we abandoned completely our rules of not moving together. We had got all we needed from this place and were free to enjoy each other’s company once again. Life on a feature film is strange in that we spend so much time together each day—even sleeping under the same roof at night—yet when the opportunity arose, we’d more than likely seize the moment to spend even more time together. Looking back now, a year and a half later, I wish I’d spent even more time talking, digging and getting to know the inner depths of everyone on that crew. It’s this thought that keeps me looking forward to the next one. MM
Chemical Cut screened May 10, 2016 at ArcLight Hollywood and will screen May 18, 2016 at ArcLight Chicago, as part of ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club.